For much of my young adult life, I struggled with high levels of stress which often led to anxiety. I also enjoyed participating in sports during my youth. When I participated in sports I soon became aware of the dramatic impact physical activity had on my stress and overall levels of anxiety. The more I exercised the better I felt; physically and mentally. Through the years, exercise has remained a standard part of my life because I recognize a distinct difference in my mood, as opposed to when I do not exercise.
In your journey through anxiety, panic, depression, or other struggles there is an immediate action you can take to begin feeling better; exercise. A combination of exercise and healthy diet will help reduce stress and elevate your mood, creating an overall sense of well-being. Stress is when the central nervous system becomes highly sensitized to increased adrenaline levels. Our bodies are designed to react this way, but anxiety, fear, and stress make it difficult for the body to get out of the fight or flight mode, shut down and relax. (see Anxiety: “Lets Get Started”)
Numerous studies have shown that many people, who struggle with anxiety, often struggle with a lack of consistent exercise, as well as, healthy eating habits. Those that do not get enough exercise are more prone to struggle with anxiety, and other related symptoms because the human brain needs the right levels of certain chemicals to feel happy. Exercise and a healthy diet increase these important brain chemicals improving the body’s ability to cope with anxiety, and stress.
A common physical response to fear and stress is the release of a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands which regulates blood pressure and the body’s use of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Experts refer to it as the “stress hormone” because cortisol secretion increases during stressful situations. Excessive cortisol in the system also suppresses the immune system, making it difficult to fight off diseases, viruses, and illnesses which can further elevate anxious feelings.
Exercise is a highly effective means for reducing adrenaline and cortisol levels in the body. When struggling with anxiety, depression, or stress, exercise can seem like the last thing you feel like doing, but once you exercise it will make a big difference. Consistent exercise will help increase your capacity in anxiety prevention; increased levels of good chemicals, makes it possible to decrease levels of stress. This occurs in two ways; altering your perception of how bad the stress is, and keeping you calm which makes it easier to plan what to do next.
In many situations, implementing an exercise and healthy diet routine, along with other methods of controlling anxiety, is the key for success. For instance, they can help when medication is not enough. Many people, who choose to take medication for their anxiety, find that it is effective as long as their stress is more or less constant. Although, when stress levels intensify, their anxiety symptoms return. At that point, exercise and eating properly can save the day. Consequently, maintaining an exercise and healthy diet, along with medication, will increase your ability to handle fluctuations in stress levels.
Exercise has emotional and psychological benefits that combat anxiety and stress, as well as, physical benefits such as:
– Exercise can relieve anxious feelings. Exercise is being prescribed, more often in clinical settings, as a natural way to treat nervous tension. Resulting, clinicians have measured a decrease in electrical activity of tensed muscles, less jittery and hyperactive, after an exercise session. Additionally, studies show that exercise delivers an immediate mood boost as well as a longer-term relief.
– Exercise can relieve panic, and in some cases, exercise can help to reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Exercise can also be a powerful way to release physical and mental tension, reducing feelings of fear and worry.
– Exercise can relax you. One exercise session can generate 90 to 120 minutes of relaxation response; this post-exercise is referred to as euphoria or endorphin. The endorphins released during exercise improve your mood and leave you relaxed. Body temperature rises during exercise which also produces calming effects.
– Exercise can help you feel better about yourself. A feeling of self-worth contributes to relief of stress and increase confidence of your ability to handle anxious feelings and stress. Exercises will assist with setting and achieving goals, which will enhance your feeling of self-worth and personal value.
– Exercise can increase the desire to eat better. Those who regularly exercise tend to eat nutritious food, manage meal portions, and eat less fast food. Good nutrition improves your body’s ability to manage stress along with many short and long-term health benefits.
Exercise can provide positive results in every aspect of your life. Maintaining a regular exercise routine has been associated with improved mood, enhanced self-esteem, increased energy levels, improved immune system, and increased ability for restful sleep. Along with the numerous benefits of exercise, it can also alleviate many of the symptoms associated with panic and anxiety.
When struggling with anxiety and other related symptoms, exercise might seem like the last thing that you have the energy to do. Those that do not incorporate exercise and healthy eating as part of life might assume, in order to achieve good results; exercise would have to be intense and time-consuming, or healthy eating would mean an extremely strict diet. This is simply not true. Exercise can be a 15-minute walk or eating less junk food could be first steps to begin to manage anxiety.
The benefits of exercise and healthy eating have been outlined, now it is time to get started. The most important first step, in anything, is a personal unwavering commitment, especially with exercise because it requires you to physically move. In the beginning it can be difficult to get started, but remember the benefits are well worth the effort. Empowering yourself begins with an internal commitment to achieve something better to become your best self.
After you have made your commitment, do not delay, begin immediately; action is the catalyst to change. The simple act of internal resolve, directly followed by action is empowerment. Regardless of your physical ability at this moment, your desire to improve and your commitment to something better is all that matters.
How to Start
Perhaps the word exercise makes you think of running for miles or lifting heavy weights at the gym. While these are forms of exercise; exercise includes a wide range of physical activities, most do not even require a gym membership. Pretty much anything that will raise your heart rate and boost your activity level is considered exercise, resulting in feeling better.
As your body adapts to an increase in physical activity you will grow stronger, physically and mentally, enhancing your capacity to do more. Broaden your thoughts about exercise, and it will become easier to incorporate it daily regardless of circumstances.
As you determine what approach is best for you, there are a plethora of resources available that will get you started immediately. Many resources provide a detailed road map of everything from exercise routines to nutrition, with exercises that can be done in the comfort of your own home (See Related Reading). Choosing to do something is more important than what you choose.
Even doing as little as 20 minutes of exercise a day, three to five days a week, can significantly improve anxiety and depression symptoms. No matter what you choose, it is important to do it on a regular basis. Keep it simple, but do it consistently. The goal is to create better habits overall, do not make drastic changes overnight. The more gradual the changes are, the more likely they are to form new habits.
Even though exercise has multiple health benefits and it takes daily motivation to stay on track. Starting and maintaining an exercise routine can be a challenge because it requires time and effort. To help you get started and more importantly to keep going, here are a few tips:
- Track your results. One of the great things about starting a new exercise routine is that you will most likely see results very quickly. Record your workouts every day and you will be able chart your progress over time. You can use the same journal that you use for your gratitude journal. Some people chose to take a picture of their body before they start exercising and track their result photographically. It doesn’t matter how you track your results the important thing is that you do.
- Choose exercises that you like. Some people enjoy weight lifting while others enjoy brisk walking on a riverside trail. The best place to start is to find what you like to do and begin with that.
- Set reasonable goals. Do not think that exercise will immediately solve all of your problems. Remember results take time. Start with small goals of improvement and build from there.
- Identify your barriers. Identify what is preventing you from exercising and identify a solution. For instance, if you feel self-conscious at a gym, you could begin by exercising at home.
At times, it may feel as though anxiety and panic are controlling your life. Reclaim your control and empower yourself by implementing a self-care routine that includes proper nutrition, physical exercise, and stress reduction.
Michael R. Bracko, chairman of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Consumer Information Committee, says “Exercise is the magic pill. Exercise can literally cure diseases like some forms of heart disease. Exercise has been implicated in helping people prevent or recover from some forms of cancer. Exercise helps people with arthritis. Exercise helps people prevent and reverse depression and anxiety.”
Consider today the start of a new path in your life, one filled with greater self-worth and esteem, confidence and happiness. One where you are better equipped with the tools and resources to manage anxiety, depression, and every personal challenge.
Consult your physician before beginning any new physical exercise and diet routine.