Anxiety is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry. For many people, it can be overwhelming. It can also be unpredictable, and when it flares up can bring with it an array of physical and emotional problems including inability to focus, sleep disturbances, racing heart rate, headache, digestive problems and feelings of unease. Anxiety disorders should be treated by a qualified health professional and should be taken seriously. Luckily, treatments do exist that can help people manage their lives around anxiety. One important way people can start to manage the way they feel is to participate in an exercise program.
Exercise by itself cannot cure anxiety or depression. It can, however, bring many physical, emotional and psychological benefits to those who do get involved in a consistent, regular fitness program. Knowing this, the real challenge is for someone who feels they are “barely holding on” to find the motivation and wherewithal to actually start exercising and then keep going. The good news is that a program does not have to be overly time consuming, physically taxing or complicated to make a difference in someone’s life.
From my experience, the best way to get someone to stick to a regular fitness regimen, when they aren’t in the habit, is to have them first focus on the frequency with which they exercise.
A workout plan is built around four separate principles that make up what is called the FITT formula: Frequency (how many times per week you are exercising), intensity (how hard you are working out), type (the choice of what exercise to do) and time (per workout session).
In the case of anxiety and exercise, the frequency is more important than how hard and how long someone does a certain activity. I would recommend starting with three times per week and building up to five. Research has shown that even small bouts of exercise of 10 minutes, spread over the week, produces positive outcomes. As the habit takes hold, the exerciser can increase their duration to 20 or 30 minutes per session and get even more benefit.
While frequency is critical, the second principle to be concerned with is the type of exercise. Most fitness activities can help to diminish anxiety-related symptoms, but the most significant is aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate for a period of time. The most common symptom of an anxiety or panic attack is a racing heart. When someone performs aerobic exercise, their heart rate speeds up and their heart and lungs become stronger and more efficient over time resulting in a lower resting heart rate between exercise sessions. The feelings that come along with the benefits of an improved cardiovascular system include an overall feeling of well-being and improved self-esteem. This alone can help to offset anxious feelings.
Many of my clients have told me that when they do an aerobic workout like hiking, biking, swimming or jogging, they almost feel like they are meditating. Problems seem to work themselves out as they go about their activity and they feel refreshed and have more mental clarity when they are done.
No matter which activity they do, it seems that the rhythmic nature of the workout, along with faster breathing and elevated heart rate relaxes them, leaving them feeling positive, able to concentrate better and proud of what they’ve accomplished. Many times, I have measured a client’s blood pressure before and after a workout and their high blood pressure will be in the normal/ healthy range when they are finished. The stress of the workout has an immediate relaxing effect on the cardiovascular system.
While all aerobic exercise can be good for you, there is an additional bonus if you do your exercise outdoors. Being in nature provides a distraction and a shift of focus for someone who is having trouble focusing due to an anxiety. While treadmills and stationary bikes are great tools, there is just something about being in the sunshine, navigating the earth that makes people feel more alive.
Here, then, is the perfect way to exercise for someone who is trying to manage anxiety.
1. Plan to do some aerobic exercise, three times per week to start. After three consecutive weeks of three sessions per week, add a fourth workout. After four consecutive weeks of four sessions, add a fifth day.
2. Decide on an activity you can do with little thought or planning. It should be something that you could do spontaneously with no travel time needed to start. Hiking, walking/jogging, swimming and cycling are your best options.
3. Move at an intensity that increases your heart rate and your breathing. You are at the right intensity if you can only speak three or four words before having to take a breath. If you can speak in an endless monologue, you aren’t working hard enough.
4. Whenever possible, take your workout outdoors and into nature as much as possible. In Hamilton, we are blessed with seemingly endless shared cycling and pedestrian trails through forests and along waterfronts.
When you are faced with a condition like an anxiety disorder, many things are out of your control. Take the initiative to control what you can; get regular aerobic exercise, outdoors and see how much better you feel because of it.