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The Fitties Blog

The Effects of Physical Activity on Anxiety

February 14, 2023 | Lifestyle and Wellness

We might all, at some point experience some level of anxiousness regarding a certain situation. When faced with a worry or concern at work, perhaps, or maybe before taking an exam, a little anxiety over the problem and potential outcome can be expected. However, more than that, anxiety disorders are far more involved than just a simple temporary worry. For people who have an anxiety disorder, the feelings of fear and worry don’t go away and often worsen over time. The symptoms themselves can interfere with normal every day activities such as work, school, home life and relationships to name a few.

Anxiety disorders aren’t relegated to a singular condition. There are in fact several kinds of anxiety disorder including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and a range of phobia-related disorders. Symptoms of these disorders can be extensive and overwhelming. They can include:

  • Feeling wound-up or restless
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Going blank in the mind
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems – restlessness, poor quality sleep, difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Fatigue

In addition, panic disorders can mean that people who suffer from it have recurring or unexpected panic attacks – which are periods of sudden and intense fear that peak within minutes. During one of these attacks, people might experience:

  • Sweating
  • Palpitations
  • Accelerated heartbeat
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Shaking
  • Feelings of lack of control
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of suffocation or choking

While the many other types of anxiety disorders out there are all earmarked by their own distinctive symptoms, it’s imperative that a person suffering from anxiety seek the counsel of a medical health professional as they are the only one equipped to help navigate the often-tumultuous waters that anxiety is.

Anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million adults and while stress and anxiety can be part of life generally, a disorder does not have to hold the sufferer hostage if there are ways and means to alleviate the symptoms. Researchers have long believed that the benefits of exercise extend far beyond just the alleviation of stress and can actually improve anxiety disorders themselves.

Some studies suggest that regular exercise when used in conjunction with a medication regimen, can help to lower the symptoms of anxiety and offer longer lasting effects. It is believed that just one intense or vigorous session of physical activity has the ability to reduce anxiety related symptoms for many hours and that partaking in regular scheduled exercise can contribute to a significant reduction in anxiety related symptoms in the long run.

It is thought and there is evidence to suggest that adults who partake in regular physical activity have a generally better perception of self, with greater self esteem due to an increased level of confidence, ability to be assertive and have improved emotional stability. In addition, physical activity seems to lay a foundation of independence and self-control which overall, is crucial in its role in decreasing symptoms of anxiety.

So how does exercise help people who suffer from anxiety?

  • Eliminates tension and stress
  • Helps to increase self-esteem
  • Enhances mood
  • Reduces physical and psychological stress reactions
  • Encourages an appreciation for improved quality of life
  • Allows for self-discovery
  • Improves levels of energy whilst expending calories

And that’s not all. Moderate intensity exercises are believed to have a positive effect on the immune system, which can all be related to exercise’s ability to suppress the stress-hormone (cortisol) thereby allowing for better immune function and a reduction in sick days.

But how does it work? How is it possible that a little exercise can make for a lot of relaxation? Seems kind of incongruous but here it is. The neurochemical basis of exercise on the body’s stress levels is centered on a reduction in stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Physical activity also signals a production of endorphins which are ‘feel-good’ hormones within the body. They are also natural pain killers and mood elevators. These guys are the ones we can credit for that ‘high’ that’s felt after a long run, or after a hard workout, those feelings of general positivity and calm – all attributed to endorphins.

Additionally, the physical factors associated with undertaking a regular workout regimen can also contribute to overall feelings of self-control, a sense of control in general, and an optimistic outlook. As you notice physical changes in your body resultant from regular physical activity (whether increased stamina, a shrinking waistline etc.) self-image often improves. Indeed, this in turn promotes pride in oneself, in the ability to achieve what you set your mind to. You have learned to master certain areas of life in order to achieve a goal and that in and of itself is a success, with a sense of calm, relaxation and optimism all extremely important by-products of that.

Beyond that though, exercise can offer an opportunity to physically remove yourself from a stressful environment and to either enjoy a little time to yourself or to get out with friends and bond. One of the premises of exercise and its effect on anxiety is if your body is engaged in active things, busy and moving, your mind is distracted and pulled away from what is causing it emotional distress and worry. It is thus free to be more open and creative.

So, how do you start? If the very thought of being physically active brings about a little anxiety, how does one start? Simply, of course. You start off small and simple.

  • Breathing exercises are as good a place as any to start. Find a quiet place to sit and close your eyes.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply, pulling the air all the way into your belly so it pushes out.
  • Momentarily hold that breath
  • Exhale long and slow whilst focusing on ‘calm’ and ‘relax’ as key words.
  • Repeat those steps between five and ten times with the focus being on deep, slow, long breaths and the words ‘calm’ and ‘relax’.
  • Yoga is wonderful because coupled with the regulation of breath are the very slow and purposeful movements in yoga which allow for greater clarity and mental focus.
  • Running releases endorphins which as we discussed help you feel good after your run and for a subsequently extended period too.
  • Hiking allows us to spend time in nature which in and of itself is a mood-booster, but paired with the cardiovascular nature of the activity itself, really enhances mood and quashes feelings of anxiety.
  • Strength training has the ability to not only build muscle, but helps to regulate sleep, improve self-esteem and in the process, reduces stress.

Anxiety disorders are all-encompassing, overwhelming conditions that eat away at happiness. It might seem like you’re stuck in an endless cycle of fight or flight, where every decision you make has life or death consequences, but it need not be that way forever. Getting out and moving might be one of the biggest steps you’ll take in the direction of overcoming symptoms of anxiety but it will be one of the best steps you take.

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