I remember reading an insensitive post once about anxiety that said: “If you’re anxious or depressed, take a walk and don’t give into it.” I rolled my eyes at this advice that lacked nuance or understanding, but have since found a grain of truth in it.
Almost 25% of women between the ages of 18-50 experience some form of anxiety disorder, a statistic that’s probably only increased in the last two years. I began struggling with anxiety in my late teens and was desperate to find ways to rid myself of it throughout college and young adulthood – pills, diets, and extra sleep seemed to help, but the true medicine was exercise.
What was wrong with that post wasn’t the advice to take a walk, it was the tone that said that exercise was a complete solution to mental disorders. While those struggling with anxiety know that there’s rarely a permanent “cure” for their condition, finding ways to abate symptoms of anxiety can greatly decrease its effect on every aspect of your life.
Why Does Exercise Help Reduce Anxiety?
To quote the great Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins, and endorphins make you happy!” Just kidding.
There’s some truth to Elle’s words though: exercising increases your heart rate, allowing the brain to more easily produce neurochemicals that naturally de-stress, such as serotonin and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Some sources have even discovered that exercise helped people improve their mental health more than medication alone.
In addition, getting up and moving activates the frontal regions of the brain that are responsible for executive function – including the amygdala, which controls our response to perceived threat. My therapist once put it simply for me: “When you have anxiety, your brain is constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Everything around you feels like a threat, even subconsciously.” By boosting the function of the frontal regions of our brain, the amygdala is able to calm down some of the ways it's overworking, thus decreasing constant fight-or-flight.
Exercise helped some people improve their mental health more than medication alone.
Finally, exercise builds physical and mental resilience – pushing through that last half mile on your run or lifting those dumbbells just one more time develops not only the muscles in your body, but the muscles in your mind. The discipline your body gains through exercise gives your mind an increased ability to respond to emotions and hardship with balance and to push through to calmer waters.
What Types of Exercise Help with Anxiety?
When my brain was particularly anxious in different seasons of my life, the type of exercise didn’t really matter – some days I would hit the treadmill, others take a long walk or lift weights, and others do a more entertaining form of exercise like rollerblading. In particular, finding forms of exercise that are outdoors (weather permitting) gave me that much-needed vitamin D, which is known to combat both anxiety and depression.
I found that the more anxious I was, the more demanding the workout I needed. Some days I would stay in the gym until I felt the tension in my mind ease, at least a little. There’s something deeply satisfying about your body being able to challenge itself when your mind feels incredibly crippled; so perhaps, cater the difficulty of your workout to the level of anxiety you’re experiencing.
How Often Do I Need To Exercise To Help Anxiety?
Since some form of daily exercise is almost always a healthy choice for most, it follows that it’s a good idea to exercise daily to manage anxiety. Again, this can be as simple as a 20-minute walk or a full hour or two in the gym, but it’s the habit of motion that really makes a difference. Learning to respond to anxiety with some form of motion, even if it was brief, helped me learn that I wasn’t a victim to my anxiety. While I couldn’t control it, I could choose how I responded to it: by accepting defeat, or by choosing to be active and healthy.
Cater the difficulty of your workout to the level of anxiety you’re experiencing.
Make Exercise Fit into Your Life
If you’re suffering from anxiety, don’t feel the need to completely change how you exercise in order to combat it, since sometimes changing a daily rhythm can only trigger more anxiety. Instead, find forms of exercise that fit in your daily life and are enjoyable to you – perhaps you love running or feel especially energized after a Pilates session.
Luckily, there are so many forms of exercise that are accessible from your living room nowadays – make a great playlist, roll out a mat, and press play for the first half hour of your morning, if it works for you. You don’t need to be like anyone else when it comes to exercise – what matters most is what’s helping you and your mind become healthier.
Make Clear Goals for Yourself in Exercise
One of the most valuable things I learned about fitness and anxiety was making sure my goals were clear. If I approached exercise with any other mindset than prioritizing my physical and mental health, it would increase my anxiety (for instance, if I became too focused on weight or appearance).
If you’re looking for more joy and positivity, try a dance workout.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, make sure you’re approaching exercise with a goal that cultivates peace in your mind and life. In addition, choose forms of exercise that uphold these mental goals! If you’re looking for more joy and positivity, try a dance workout. If you’re looking for more strength, try weightlifting. If you’re looking for endurance, try cycling.
Remember That Being Rid of Anxiety Isn’t the Goal
One of the hardest lessons I learned about anxiety was that I may never defeat it. For years, my mindset in going to therapy, exercising, taking medicine, or trying a certain diet was to eliminate anxiety from my life, and I felt like I was doing something wrong if my symptoms weren’t disappearing.
Ironically, what finally loosened anxiety’s grip on my life was accepting its presence. Slowly, I stopped seeing anxiety as an enemy to conquer, and rather as a companion that I needed to learn to journey with and adapt to. Exercising was one of the chief ways I learned this; while I couldn’t control symptoms or when anxiety would ebb and flow, I could control how I took care of myself and responded to the ebbing and flowing. I could let anxiety confine me to my bed for the day, or make it the motivation for me to take better care of my body, mind, and soul.
This isn’t a promise that exercise will take your anxiety away, rather that it can only help you become more responsive to the unique physical, mental, and spiritual needs that anxiety creates. By increasing neurochemical resources that help decrease symptoms and teaching you to move in the face of mental adversity, exercise makes you more courageous, healthy, and resilient – even if you count anxiety as one of your daily companions.
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