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Exercise and Anxiety: Does Exercise Actually Help? 

Living with anxiety can be hard, but regular exercise could help reduce worry and boost wellbeing. We explore the benefits and best exercises for anxiety.

A queasy stomach before a big speech. Sweaty palms before a first date. We all feel anxious sometimes. But for many, anxiety is far more than the occasional jittery feeling. 

Anxiety can manifest in varying ways, from slight unease to full-blown panic attacks. While it’s a natural emotion, ongoing anxiety can disrupt work, relationships, and overall happiness. Anxiety lies at the core of common mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias. By unpacking what anxiety looks and feels like, we can explore ways to keep it from limiting us.

Anxiety is a common mental health condition characterized by feelings of worry, fear, and unease. While we all feel anxiety occasionally, like before an exam or an operation, some people find their anxiety more constant, affecting their daily lives.

One of the most effective anxiety-busters is exercise. Moving your body provides biochemical and emotional relief while easily incorporating it into your daily life. Taking care of both your body and mind is essential for overall well-being.

Mental Health And Exercise: Does Exercise Help With Anxiety?
Physical activity isn’t just about building muscle or increasing endurance. For many, it’s a vital part of their mental health toolkit, providing immediate and long-term relief from anxiety. Here are some of the ways it helps:

The Neurochemical Boost

One of the wonders of exercise lies in its ability to induce profound neurochemical changes in our bodies. Regular physical activity triggers the release of endocannabinoids, mood-enhancing neuromodulators known for their calming effects. These chemical compounds, found naturally within our system, produce euphoria, reduce stress, and promote a sense of well-being. Plus, exercise stabilizes other key neurotransmitters to maintain an even-keeled mood long-term.

Beyond Endorphins

For years, the mood-lifting benefits of exercise were attributed to endorphins, often termed the “runner’s high.” While there’s no denying the pleasure that can result from an intense workout session, modern science suggests that endorphins might not be the reason. It’s an exciting area of research, with some experts arguing that other factors, like the endocannabinoids mentioned above, might be more instrumental in mediating exercise-induced euphoria.

A Healthy Distraction

Engaging in any form of physical activity—a brisk walk, a yoga session, or an intense HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout—often requires concentration and focus. This immersion offers a valuable break from persistent negative thoughts or overthinking, which can be especially beneficial for those prone to anxiety or depressive rumination. Focusing on the present moment, the body’s movement, and the breath’s rhythm can serve as a grounding experience, steering the mind away from stressors and toward a state of calm.

The Jury Has Spoken

Studies consistently show active people report lower anxiety levels and reduced risk for anxiety disorders compared to inactive peers. Exercise can be both a prevention and a therapy.

So next time you need to blow off steam, clear your head, or feel more joyful, remember the power of moving your body. There are just some days when we’re not able to jump right into working out even when anxiety is high. For those days, try quick guided practices like SOS Breath Work, and Shake Off Your Tension.

5 Of The Best Exercises For Anxiety

There are many activities that can help alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of peace and tranquillity. Here are some ideas. 

1. Aerobic exercise

Engaging in aerobic exercises such as running, cycling, or swimming releases brain chemicals that boost mood and reduce stress. These high-energy activities help distract the mind from anxious thoughts and improve sleep patterns (and we all know how a lack of sleep leaves us feeling!)

For lower-intensity movement, you can always take a mindful walk. Try Walk Away Stress to find peace while walking.

2. Yoga

Yoga combines gentle movement with mindful breathing techniques. The practice of yoga has been shown to help reduce stress hormones like cortisol while increasing the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety levels.

If you’d like to up-level your at-home yoga sessions, try pairing them with these relaxing soundscapes like Distant Ocean Surf.

3. Tai Chi

Originating from ancient Chinese martial arts practices, tai chi is a slow-moving exercise focusing on breath control and precise movements. This meditative practice promotes relaxation by reducing muscle tension and improving balance while fostering a sense of inner calm. Practising tai chi regularly has been linked to decreased anxiety levels and improved mental clarity.

Try adding Infinite Ambient for Relaxation to your movement playlist.

4. Nature Walks

Connecting with nature through leisurely walks in natural settings has proven to effectively alleviate anxiety symptoms. Spending time outdoors exposes you to fresh air, sunlight, and green surroundings – all of which have been shown to significantly boost mood and reduce stress levels. 

Whether a stroll through a park or hiking along scenic trails, immersing yourself in nature can provide much-needed tranquillity for an anxious mind.

If you can’t get outside, you can still connect with nature by listening to a beautiful soundscape like Calm Island.

5. Strength Training

While it may seem counterintuitive, weightlifting can benefit people dealing with anxiety. Engaging in resistance training not only strengthens your physical body but also helps release tension and stress. The focused and repetitive movements in weightlifting provide a sense of control and empowerment, boosting self-confidence and reducing anxiety levels.

Cool down after your workout with a guided meditation like Relaxed Open-hearted Presence.

Bringing any type of exercise into your routine can dramatically impact managing anxiety. There are just two things to remember:

  • If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re much more likely to keep it up, so pick something that appeals to you. It doesn’t matter if you prefer running, yoga, or hiking. Do what gets you moving joyfully. 
  • Listen to your body’s needs and start with small steps, gradually increasing the intensity as you feel comfortable. 

Overcoming Anxiety With Exercise And Meditation

If you want to take your anxiety-busting exercise routine one step further, don’t work out harder, work out smarter. 

While exercise alone has been proven to have numerous mental health benefits, adding meditation into the mix can amplify these benefits even further.

Consider starting your workouts with some gentle mindful movement such as The Daily Move with Mel Mah.

Meditation fosters mindfulness, which is the practice of being fully present, aware, and accepting of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment. By cultivating mindfulness through meditation, we can better stay grounded and focused on the present, reducing worries about the future or ruminations about the past that often contribute to anxiety. You can allow mindfulness to guide you toward a calmer state of mind

Remember that everyone’s experience with anxiety is unique, and it’s essential to find the coping strategies and exercise routines that work best for you. If you feel lost you can always check in with your healthcare provider.

Looking for a post-workout meditation? Pause to Breathe is one of our go-to’s.

Exercise and anxiety FAQs 

Q: Does exercise help with anxiety?

Research suggests that regular exercise can indeed have a positive impact on anxiety levels. Engaging in physical activity releases natural mood-boosting chemicals in the brain. Additionally, exercise provides an opportunity to focus on the present moment and distract yourself from anxious thoughts.

Q: What is the best exercise for anxiety?

The best exercise for anxiety is the exercise you’ll do. Needs will vary from person to person according to individual preferences and physical abilities. However, any form of exercise that gets your heart rate up can be especially beneficial. This could include activities such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or dancing.

Q: What are the best techniques used for coping with anxiety?

There are various techniques that people use to cope with anxiety effectively. These may include: 

  • Deep breathing exercises to promote relaxation
  • Practising mindfulness or meditation to cultivate present-moment awareness
  • Engaging in a regular physical activity like yoga 
  • Seeking support from loved ones or professionals through therapy or counselling sessions 
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle including sufficient sleep and balanced nutrition

If you’re looking for more techniques, check out the ultimate anxiety toolkit.

Q: What are the four coping skills for anxiety?

Coping skills play a vital role in managing anxiety symptoms. Other than exercise, four commonly recommended coping skills for anxiety include: 

  • Identifying and challenging negative thought patterns through cognitive-behavioural techniques; 
  • Practising self-care activities such as engaging in hobbies or taking time for oneself; 
  • Using stress-reduction strategies like progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery; 
  • Developing healthy emotional outlets such as journaling or talking about your feelings with someone you trust.
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