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How exercise can help anxiety

By Jaimi A’Court

My brain often feels like a computer that has too many tabs open. A thought pops into my head and before I have even had the chance to deal with it another one pops up. Ding, ding, ding your brain has delivered you another notification. In a matter of seconds and seemingly for no real reason, I feel like I am quite literally drowning in my own thoughts. Have you ever experienced something similar to this? If you have chances are you know a little about how it feels to be anxious.

The current Australian Mental Health statistics show that anxiety is very common. On average 1 in 4 people (1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men) will experience anxiety. Anxiety is a very broad category and can range from Generalised Anxiety and Social Phobias to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress. It is important to understand that you do not have to have been clinically diagnosed to understand what it feels like to be anxious.

I like to think of it as a spectrum; a very long and wide spectrum, that encompasses a range of feelings, thoughts and behaviours. For example you could walk into a crowded shopping centre, on your way to grab some milk and all of a sudden your stomach feels like a washing machine or you could be about to board a flight and all you can think is:

This is it. The plane is going to crash. I hope my family enjoys my possessions.

What every form of anxiety, diagnosed or not, has in common is the rumination of negative thoughts. More or less this means your brain puts unhelpful thoughts on replay until it starts to affect your mood and behaviour. There are thousands of available therapeutic services out there to help reduce or deal with anxiety in your everyday life. But I will let you in on a little secret and something that I have found works really well for me: Exercise. Not only is this something that I have found out for myself but research also shows the positive benefits exercise has for anxiety symptoms. Specifically, findings from a wide range of studies collectively show support for exercise interventions for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Exercise has acute and long-term effects on anxiety:

  • Acute = The rush of happy hormones directly after completion of an exercise.
  • Long term effects = Increased self-esteem, increased coping ability, change in hormones.

Here are my four top exercise tips for dealing with anxiety:

  1. Just move: If you are already in a heightened state do not put further pressure on yourself to make it to the gym for an intensive session. Get up out of bed, pull your sneakers on and go for a 20-minute walk. Breathe in the fresh air and just enjoy that 20 minutes for yourself.
  2. Yoga: Yoga has amazing mobility and flexability effects but the less spoken about benefits are for your mind. Yoga allows you to check in with yourself, connect your mind with your body, and practice relaxation and mindfulness.
  3. Resistance Training: The well known physical benefits of weight training such as building muscle and strength, speeding up your metabolism and burning fat will naturally help increase self-esteem and confidence which will in turn will help with anxious tendencies. However, weight training not only builds your physical strength but it can have a positive impact on mental strength. It is empowering to feel strong, fit and healthy and weight lifting induces these positive feelings.
  4. Group Exercise: Joining a gym or attending a group session can seem overwhelming and unattainable but it really does not have to be. To start grab a group of friends, your partner, your kids or a family member and do something active together. You will be more motivated, committed and accountable to exercising if you are doing it with someone else. Plus you have the added social support which is great is you are experiencing anxious feelings.

For some people anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviours do not affect everyday living but for some it can be more debilitating. Wherever you lie on the wonderful and wide spectrum of anxiety, exercise, movement and channeling your mind-body connection is a safe, healthy and inexpensive management strategy. So next time your brain is sending you those pesky unhelpful notifications think about how you can implement some or all of PEAQ’s top exercise tips for dealing with anxiety.

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