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Can Exercise Help to Reduce the Symptoms of Anxiety?

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I. Don’t. Like. Exercise. FACT. At one point in time I might’ve even claimed to hate it. The urge to pound the pavement, or zip over to the gym just isn’t something that’s ever really come naturally to me.

The one exception to this rule is skipping (or jump rope if you’re based in the United States), and at the age of 33, I don’t think I can get away with skipping to the corner shop whenever we need a pint of milk!

After a particularly bad period of anxiety, I went to see my doctor for a check-up. He listened to my symptoms patiently and then asked, “Have you tried going for a run?”

I wanted to scream.

Why was this, along with chamomile tea, continually thrown back in my face? The jogging groups, the marathon training, the parks runs on a Saturday morning. After battling anxiety for what often feels like hours on end, the last thing I felt like doing was heading out in my running gear. I’d rather collapse on the couch and devour a family size packet of chocolate biscuits!

Exercise felt like a punishment rather than therapy, and I was reluctant to engage.

“How would going for a run help me?” I asked.

 My doctor looked back at me, genuinely perplexed. “I’ve heard that it’s good for stress,” he said.

He then swiftly moved on to other suggestions.

Hype or reality?

Exercise (in my opinion), is touted as being ‘the answer to everything’, but people rarely stop to ask WHY. If I’m going to commit to any form of therapy or treatment, then I want concrete, scientific evidence, detailing why it’s beneficial for my mental health.

Phrases like, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!” or “Think of the endorphins” doesn’t quite cut it with me.

At home, I researched the potential benefits of exercise when dealing with anxiety. I’ll admit, part of me wanted to find zero evidence, as this would enable me crawl back to the couch guilt free. Yet, an hour later, I was stilled glued to my laptop.

Facing the facts 

Here are some of the surprising ways exercise can help fight the feelings that often come along with stress and anxiety.

Exercise generates “feel-good” endorphins

Let’s start with the endorphins that people – and doctors – often bang on about.
During cardiovascular exercise (e.g. running, cycling, rowing), the body releases “natural cannabis-like brain chemicals and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being.”  These are also termed as “feel-good” hormones that naturally help to lift the mood – similar to the “happy” feelings I experience when I eat chocolate biscuits (but without the calories and inevitable sugar crash about 20-minutes later). 

Exercise burns off adrenaline and cortisol 

During periods of anxiety and stress, the adrenal glands produce both cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones). Adrenaline in particular is linked to our ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which helps us to react quickly to danger.

Unfortunately, if we’re sat at work or travelling on the bus, it’s unlikely that we need to run away or fight a predator! Our fight-or-flight hormone has likely been triggered in error, or in response to emotional stress. This extra adrenaline remains in our bodies and can cause physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate and trembling. Exercise can be a great way to control and burn off burn off excess adrenaline naturally. Sometimes, after a stressful meeting, I like to go for a brisk walk around the block to help expel any adrenaline. 

Exercise can promote natural sleepiness   

If, like me, anxiety affects your sleep then exercise is a great way to burn off excess energy in a concentrated way. There’s a reason why mums take their kids to the park to tire them out!

I spoke to my friend Sarah about this, who is a busy mother of two children and also lives with General Anxiety Disorder.

“I started likening my anxiety to my kids, who are always buzzing with energy,” she said.  “I engage them in outdoor activities like sports, because it knackers them out and gives me some peace! It occurred to me that I could take a similar approach to my anxiety. I now play netball once a week with a local team.”

Exercise can be a (good) distraction

When I’m running on a treadmill or using the cross trainer, I have to concentrate. Otherwise, there’s every chance that I’ll fall flat on my face. I also like to listen to music or a podcast apply 15 minutes of focus. This distraction helps my brain to get out of the worry loop that it’s been stuck in.

How to approach exercise

Now I’ve explained the facts, here’s a few tried-and-tested ways to approach a new regime.

Do something you enjoy (or at least don’t hate!)

For me personally, outdoor jogging with a group is my idea of hell. Whereas a brisk walk on a treadmill at the gym is fine. It’s important to choose an activity that you don’t associate with punishment. This could be a fun exercise class like Zumba, or maybe a team sport. You could even start with a workout tutorial on YouTube.

Build up slowly

The urge to go all in at 100% is tempting, but this can be disheartening, not to mention dangerous. If you haven’t exercised in months, then aim to start slow.

Initially, I ran for two minutes (no joke), then walked for five and ran for an additional two minutes. The goal is to do SOME exercise, not to beat unrealistic targets. You can increase your time and speed as you grow stronger.

Try to dress the part

During my first gym session after two years, I wore one of my husband’s old t-shirts and used a pair of (clean) knickers as a bobble, because I couldn’t find anything to tie my hair back.

Was I self-conscious? YES! The knickers-bobble was definitely a fashion faux pas and certainly not recommended.
It’s not about spending lots of money on flashy gear, but there’s something to be said for clothes and trainers that fit well and make you feel good.

Commit

Don’t expect results after one session. I vowed to go to the gym three times a week for one month. By week three I started to notice a difference and it was galvanising.

I wasn’t cured by any means, but I felt less jittery and that my anxiety attacks were easier to manage.

If you feel well enough, set yourself some realistic goals and try to stick to them. However, always make sure to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise regime.

UK/MED/20/0070 March 2020