Physical exercise lowers our anxiety. Most of us think that our minds are separate from our bodies. We imagine our bodies are the equivalent of car bodies, whereas our brains behave as engines, coordinating everything and pushing us forward. But the human physiology is more complicated than simple mechanics. Our bodies and minds are interconnected.
The physical benefits of exercise have long been established, but recent studies show that exercising could help us maintain our mental fitness as well. In the following article, I will explain how physical exercise can lower our stress and anxiety levels.
If we want to understand how physical exercise can lower our anxiety levels, we must first understand what anxiety is.
Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress. Most of us experience it as a feeling of apprehension about what’s to come, or as a feeling of fear. We feel anxious before starting a new job or before giving a speech in public. And that’s perfectly normal.
When we are anxious or frightened, the amygdala – a structure located in the middle of our brains – releases hormones that speed up our heart rate and prepare our muscles for action. The amygdala is an ancient structure, and its responses override our cognitive behaviors.
We might know there’s nothing to be afraid of when showing up at a new workplace, but our amygdala surely doesn’t. It wants us to be prepared, so it releases chemicals to prepare us to fight or flee. Our pupils dilate so we can see better, and blood is diverted from our extremities to our large muscles and to our core.
Now, these responses were helpful for our hunter–gatherer ancestors, but they’re surely not useful in office environments. The blood redistribution in our bodies leaves us with cold and clammy hands, and we can actually hear our heart pumping out blood so we can’t hear much else. Our legs quiver, our mouths are parched, and our stomachs cramp. Our faces are drained of colour and our dilated pupils have a hard time adjusting to powerful artificial light. Our overactive nervous systems are actively looking for danger, so they won’t memorise any of the new names we are supposed to memorise.
Fortunately, most of us calm down after a short while and we regain our senses. But this is just the normal response. Some of us suffer from extreme bouts of anxiety that can last for more than 6 months. Others suffer from crippling anxiety that interferes with their lives. If this happens, we could suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Now that we understand what anxiety is and how it affects our bodies, let’s take a look at how physical exercise lowers our anxiety.
Regular physical activity is often the first lifestyle modification physicians recommend for the management and prevention of chronic diseases. According to a meta-study conducted in 2002 in the US, regular exercise can reduce the causes of mortality by up to 30% in both men and women. And the best part is, we can observe these health benefits across all age groups, races, and ethnicities.
Regular exercise can affect and alter our brain structure. Now, this might not seem important for those of us who suffer from anxiety at a first glance, but it can actually be very helpful. Thanks to an abundance of new neurons, the brain releases more GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that lowers our brain activity and inhibits some neurons from activating easily. Simply speaking, GABA is like a nanny who makes sure all the children play nice with each other.
The new neurons develop in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that interacts the most with the amygdala. When we are anxious or frightened the amygdala fires off and orders the release of hormones to prepare us to fight or flight. However, the surplus of GABA in our brains will stop the amygdala from overreacting and will reduce the anxiety we feel.
The normal side effects of exercise are very similar to the physical manifestations of panic. When we exercise, our heart rates increase, our muscle tense, we breathe quickly, and we sweat a lot, just like we do when we panic.
Constant physical exercises help desensitize us to the physical signs of anxiety and panic attacks. By experiencing these symptoms several times per week, our bodies learn to recognize and tolerate them. This allows us to deal with the sensations when they arise due to fear or anxiety.
We could say this is a form of exposure therapy because the repeated exposures lead to better tolerance and less anxiety or fear.
Several studies discovered that exercise can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, but one of them went even further. A study found that regular exercise can be as effective as some prescription medication for those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression. A single training session can stave off our anxiety for hours, and maintaining a regular workout schedule may significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety over time.
Regular exercise can make all of us feel less anxious. However, some people are more receptive to the positive effects of exercise while others are not. Nonetheless, the beneficial effects on our physical and mental health are indisputable, so physicians encourage us to be physically active.
Regular exercise can dull the pain we feel, at least for a while. And when we think about it, we’ve known this ever since we were children.
Most of us can relate to the following scenario – when we played as children we accidentally hit ourselves. Now, the pain we felt might have been moderate or intense, but it sure seemed awful at the moment. But after seeing the other children running around and we carried on with our games, the pain seemed duller. We simply didn’t experience the pain at the same intensity.
Well, recent studies discovered that those of us who engage in regular physical exercise really feel less pain because we develop a mental tolerance to it. It’s currently unclear why we develop this tolerance, but scientists speculate we build it over time because physical exercise is often painful, so the mind learns to ignore the pain.
This might sound like an advertisement for a gym membership, but it’s actually a fact backed by science. Physical exercise can make us happier.
Our cortisol levels decrease when we exercise. Cortisol is a stress-response hormone that plays an essential role in our bodies’ immune and metabolic responses. But even though cortisol can be very useful, having elevated cortisol levels can be harmful to our physical and mental health. Those of us who have elevated cortisol levels are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Besides lowering our cortisol levels, exercising also stimulates our bodies to produce and release endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters usually associated with happiness. When we exercise, our bodies face a stressful situation. Our muscle tense and our joints ache so our minds do everything in their power to improve the experience. They order the release of endorphins, which improves our bodies’ ability to ignore the stress.
Chronic insomnia is a common sleep disorder among adults all over the world. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Unfortunately, sleep is the first thing most of us sacrifice when we want to achieve or to do more. Whether we want to catch up on our studies, put in some extra hours for work, spend more time with friends or family, or watch our favourite series we give up sleep to do so.
But sleep deprivation can be very harmful. Sleep disorders increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and heart attack. Sleep deprivation is also present in nearly all psychiatric disorders. Those of us who suffer from chronic insomnia are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. And to top it off, sleeplessness can lead to poor performances at work or school, which can further increase our anxiety problems.
We should sleep at least seven hours per day. Most experts recommend sleeping up to nine hours if we can. And exercising can help with that. Here’s how:
Some psychologists consider willpower as the main attribute for a successful life. And several studies seem to prove them right. Those of us who have a good willpower are more able to avoid temptations and vices, and they can adhere to their plans.
People who have a stronger willpower can delay gratification. They do not crave the immediate results, but they will pay close attention so their long-term plans come to completion. They are less prone to make impulsive actions, and they are capable of living healthy lifestyles without too much effort. Those of us who have a stronger willpower exercise more self-control.
Fortunately, exercising can improve our willpower. And that makes sense, if we think about it. Every time we go for a run or hit the gym, we do it out of sheer will. Nobody really enjoys working out, at least not when we’re just starting. Our muscles ache, our joints hurt, the distance seems too long or the weights too heavy. But we’re stubborn creatures and we don’t give up easily. So we push ourselves to complete the exercise. That’s our willpower in action.
We’re not only training our muscles when we exercise. We’re also training our willpower. And that will give us the mental fortitude to overcome our anxiety when the situation arises.
Regular exercise can be beneficial for our creativity. When we exercise, our hearts pump blood at an accelerated rate. Thanks to the blood surplus, the brain receives more oxygen and nutrients. The extra resources make our brains more creative. Exercising can also be repetitive, so only a part of our brain is tracking our movement while the rest wanders freely.
Now, you might be wondering how this could be helpful for anxiety. Well, we’re all anxious about something. We might have different problems, but we’re anxious because we’re not satisfied with our solutions for them.
This is where creativity comes in. A creative mind will come up with multiple solutions for every problem. And creative thinking can lead to ingenious ideas. After all, we shouldn’t worry about circling around or breaking down a fence when jumping over it can be a solution.
However, we should keep in mind that only low to moderate exercises help boost our creativity. When we’re performing intense physical exercises our minds are too concentrated on the movement to focus on anything else.
Those of us who suffer from anxiety often have a low self-esteem. And unfortunately, decreased self-esteem increases the risk of depression. A lot of anxiety comes from the fear that we do not have the intelligence, skills, and abilities to live the life we’ve always dreamed of.
But exercise can break this vicious circle. When we exercise regularly, we lose weight. Now, even if losing weight is not one of our goals, it can still be beneficial for our self-esteem. Being lean improves our physical appearance and determines us to feel better about ourselves.
Physical exercise is beneficial because it constantly tests our limits. And when we exercise regularly, we get to overcome these limits. For every goal we accomplish, our brains reward us by releasing dopamine into our bloodstream.
Dopamine – also known as “the happiness molecule” – is a neurotransmitter involved in our reward-behavior mechanism. Every time we achieve something, our brains order the release of dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good for several hours, and it can be quite addictive.
But here’s the catch – We can use the dopamine release to our advantage when we exercise. We can set out goals we know we can achieve, whether it’s running 2 miles or performing 20 squats. Once we accomplish these goals, our brains will reward us. While this might seem trivial, it can actually be beneficial for our self-esteem. Achieving small goals will encourage our confidence and give us the will to try accomplishing something more important.
Physical exercise is all about progress. None of us can run a full marathon or squat with a barbell that weighs more than we do on our first tries. When we exercise, failing is usually a good thing. Failing while exercising means we pushed ourselves to our farthest limits. But as all of us who exercise know, these limits change constantly. One moment we’re struggling to complete a 2-mile running course, the other we’re running a 5-mile while barely breaking a sweat.
A great thing about exercise is that it teaches us resilience. Exercising teaches us that every time we fail we have two choices – we can either admit defeat and quit, or we can train harder to overcome our obstacles. And when we exercise, we fail constantly.
Exercising teaches us that failure is only a part of our success, and we can use it to transcend our limits. When we acknowledge failure as a necessity for progress, that’s when we can overcome our boundaries.
The best thing about exercising is that it teaches us how valuable patience and hard work are. We can’t achieve anything worthwhile overnight, and we can’t do it without work. It can take months of constant training to add 3 miles to our running course, but it is possible.
Exercise teaches us that progress is not only possible, but achievable. And when we learn how to progress, we can overcome our anxiety. So what if we have a big work presentation next week? We will put in the time to prepare for it, and we will ace it.
Regular exercise is designed for self-improvement. It doesn’t matter if we skate, swim, play basketball, or lift weights, exercising will lead to improvement.
When we exercise regularly, we grow – and I’m not even talking about muscle mass now. Regular exercise allows us to track our progress and see how much we can evolve over time. This teaches us several things:
Now that we’ve seen how exercise can help lower our anxiety levels, let’s see how much exercise we actually need for this purpose.
Well, studies show that we can reap all the mental and physical benefits of exercise by training for 30 minutes five times per week. Is your schedule too busy to include five 30-minute training sessions? No problem, you can train for only 10 minutes per day and still experience an anxiety relief.
In fact, most specialists recommend starting easy. We should start with five to ten – minute training sessions and increase their duration as our fitness level improves. The more we exercise, the more energetic we will feel, so we will eventually feel ready for more exercise.
The key to using exercise as a treatment for anxiety is consistency. We should commit to do some moderate physical exercises at least five times per week if we cannot commit to doing them on a daily basis. As we get used to exercising, we should slowly increase our training times and the difficulty of our exercises.
Moderate exercises are the best. We shouldn’t overdo it. If we notice we’re out of breath or overheated, we should lower the intensity. We should keep in mind we’re free to take breaks if we feel exhausted and that hydration is very important.
Working out your stress is a great way to dealing with anxiety. Physical exercise offers many physical and mental benefits, and it will improve our wellbeing. And the great thing is, we don’t even have to train for hours to tap into the benefits physical exercise offers. Training for ten to 30 minutes per day leads to anxiety relief.