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Anyone who has anxiety knows how helpless you can feel sometimes. Some days you can feel like your anxiety is quite mild, while other days it can feel like anxiety is taking over your life. But exercise can be a huge saving grace for our mental health.
This is what Adele found, when she suffered from “the most terrifying anxiety attacks” post-divorce.
In her interview with Oprah, the singer spoke about how working with a personal trainer and taking up boxing improved her mental health.
“I noticed how much I trusted my trainer’s presence when I was feeling so lost, but also I didn’t have any anxiety when I was out at the gym. It became my time – me having a plan every day when I had no plans,” she shared. “It really contributed towards me getting my mind right.”
Adele is certainly on the right track. Exercise can have huge benefits for our wellbeing – if utilised in the right way.
How can exercise ease anxiety?
Dr Janaki Thakerar, who is a general practitioner at Babylon GP, says exercise has been proven time and time again to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and negative moods.
“This is particularly seen in aerobic exercise including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, but has also been seen with strength training,” she tells HuffPost UK. “In addition, it also helps to improve social interaction, self-esteem and overall wellbeing.”
The chemicals that are released when exercising can improve stress and anxiety. “Physical activity can also help to release substances called dopamine and serotonin (‘happy hormones’), which can improve mood,” Dr Thakerar says.
“During exercise, the increase in blood circulation to the brain can influence the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and reduce levels of stress.”
Over time, exercise can also reduce the amount of cortisol – the stress hormone – in your body, which prevents the body from being exposed to prolonged stress and can decrease the risk of depression and anxiety in the future.
This can also improve sleep, whilst distracting us from excessive negative thoughts, says personal trainer Dom Thorpe.
“Exercise also increases levels of other endogenous opioids, such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, which inhibit pain and produce positive moods,” he adds.
So, how can you incorporate exercise into your daily life?
Dr Thakerar believes it’s important to just start. “No matter how small. There is the false impression that you need to be sweating it out for an hour in the gym to be active. You can even see benefits from doing an extra 5-10 minutes a day,” she says.
“Find something you enjoy. This means you are more likely to stick with it, and therefore gain the most benefits out of exercising regularly. Find an accountability partner. If you exercise with someone, this will be much more enjoyable and you are more likely to continue with it so that you don’t feel guilty for cancelling.”
Thorpe says the type of workout most suitable for anxiety will vary depending on each individual case. If the thought of going to a gym or other populous confined spaces is a concern, a home workout or outdoor activity may be preferable.
“Equally, if loneliness or fear of doing things wrong is a problem, working out in a group or with a friend/coach that you’re familiar with can settle the fears and make the process less stressful,” he says.
You might be drawn towards exercise that combines relaxation and meditation, such as yoga or tai chi, says Thorpe. However, higher intensity exercise types such as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) are thought to lead to the biggest post-exercise “highs,” due to the release of endorphins. Experiment to find what’s right for you, and remember there’s no correct answer.
Be kind to yourself when taking up exercise for anxiety – this is about boosting your mental health, not being the fastest, strongest athlete around.
That said, Jodie Cariss, who is a therapist and founder of instant therapy service Self Space, believes setting yourself micro or achievable goals and celebrating your efforts towards them can be an act of self-love.
“[This] can be a great way of motivating and empowering yourself, something that can support you in life beyond the workout,” she says. “It’s also a great way of testing your emotional flexibility, checking in with yourself daily in what feels manageable for you to achieve today, asking questions like ‘how do I feel’, ‘am I well enough’, ‘how will I feel better afterwards’, ‘can I let it go if it doesn’t serve me without punishing myself?’”
You can make exercising extra rewarding by crossing your workout off a list or marking it in a calendar, Cariss says.
“The physical process of marking this off really reinforces the message of achieving something,” she explains. “Rewarding yourself with something can also honour what you have done for yourself, that doesn’t need to mean food or something expensive, but something nourishing that honours your dedication.”
Finally, take time to appreciate how good you feel immediately after sessions. This will make it a little easier to get going for future sessions – and help you create healthy habits to manage your anxiety longterm.
Remember, exercise is only part of the puzzle, and if your anxiety does not feel manageable, speak to a mental health professional.
Move celebrates exercise in all its forms, with accessible features encouraging you to add movement into your day – because it’s not just good for the body, but the mind, too. We get it: workouts can be a bit of a slog, but there are ways you can move more without dreading it. Whether you love hikes, bike rides, YouTube workouts or hula hoop routines, exercise should be something to enjoy.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.