During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have experienced increased levels of anxiety or stress. At the same time, we aren’t able to do many of the activities that would normally help us relieve those feelings.
We all know that regular exercise leads to improved physical health. Even at moderate levels of intensity, working out helps you lower blood pressure and cholesterol, increase bone density, and maintain a healthy weight.
But does exercise help with mental health issues like anxiety? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says “yes.” Research supports a positive relationship between exercise and mental wellness.
It doesn’t matter whether you sometimes worry or have been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. Your mother’s advice was right: Going for a walk can help you sort things out.
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The Link Between Exercise and Anxiety
According to the ADAA, more than 18% of the population suffers from some type of anxiety disorder. Whether your anxiety is occasional or frequent, exercise can help alleviate symptoms. Here’s how:
- Moving your body takes the focus off your worries. That alone may be enough to break the cycle of negative thoughts that contribute to depression and anxiety.
- Exercise decreases muscle tension, which is a major physical contributor to anxiety.
- Increasing your heart rate boosts the production of feel-good chemicals, including serotonin and dopamine.
- Exercise can be social. Sometimes, just getting out with a group of friends can improve your mood.
- Working out helps you feel more confident. Accomplishing one small thing (even a walk around the block) can frame your world in a more positive way. That small success transfers to other areas of your life.
Calming Exercises for Anxiety
Your odds of sticking to a workout plan are better if you choose activities aligned with your interests.
Running can improve your mood, for example, but it’s not for everyone. Walking may be less intimidating and more doable — especially for people with a high BMI or currently living a sedentary lifestyle.
Getting exercise from these three basic categories can help to keep your mind and body strong:
1. Cardiovascular exercise
Popular cardio options include jogging, walking, biking, and swimming. However, anything that gets your heart rate up counts as cardio, including gardening, mowing the lawn, and cleaning the house.
Thirty minutes, three to five times a week is enough for physical and mental benefits to kick in. Watch your breathing: It should be harder than normal, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation.
2. Strength training
This type of exercise has been shown to improve strength and contribute to weight loss in addition to having mental health benefits. Aim for three times per week.
3. Relaxation techniques
Meditative practices, like yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and gentle stretching routines help to slow down your breathing and calm your racing mind. Yoga, in particular, emphasizes body awareness and mindfulness. When your attention is focused on each breath and specific parts of your body, your mind naturally calms down.
Try just a few minutes a couple times each week to start.
Tips for Getting Started with Exercise
- Pick something simple. Choosing an activity that requires a lot of training or special equipment can actually produce more anxiety. You may feel overwhelmed and quit soon after you start. Walking is a good choice for many people, regardless of age or physical condition.
- Choose what you love to do. Have you always regretted giving up dance in the sixth grade? Try an adult tap class or take up ballroom dancing with your partner. Love the outdoors? Take a hike in the fresh air. A dog lover? Volunteer to walk puppies for a local shelter.
- Break it into pieces. Instead of a 30-minute walk every day, try three 10-minute walks. You get the same benefits, yet it can feel more doable.
- Tackle a project. Planting a garden or cleaning out an attic counts as exercise. Bonus: You’ll get a mental boost from the sense of accomplishment you feel afterward.
- Get a buddy on board. Being accountable to someone else is a huge motivator. If you have a standing appointment to meet a friend at the YMCA every Saturday, walk with a co-worker during your lunch hour every day, or join an online yoga class, you’re much more likely to exercise.
- Make it a routine. Experts say it takes about three weeks to form a habit, and that’s especially true with exercise. Schedule a workout time the way you do everything else. (Set a reminder on your phone, if need be.) Soon, you’ll be on your way to a calmer, healthier you!
- Check with your doctor. Before starting any exercise routine, it’s important to talk with your primary health care provider.
- Coping with COVID. This time of COVID-19 can be challenging. With so many of us being homebound, it takes creativity to find an activity to engage in regularly. On the upside, doing it can improve anxiety symptoms, mood, energy, and feelings of connectedness.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Facts and Statistics" https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
ADAA: “Exercise for Stress and Anxiety"https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety
National Institutes of Health: “Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety"https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
American Psychological Association: “The Exercise Effect" https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise
Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School: “Can Exercise Help Treat Anxiety?"https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-treat-anxiety-2019102418096
Psychology Today: “How Exercise Reduces Anxiety"https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/integrative-mental-health-care/201810/how-exercise-reduces-anxiety
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.