7 Science-Proven Ways Exercise Can Alleviate Anxiety
Stress is inevitable and, over the last forty years, anxiety has spread much like an epidemic. Ever since 1980, when Generalized Anxiety Disorder first appeared as a diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, nearly everyone seems to have “caught” the disease. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, ages 18 and older. And that’s only accounting for the individuals who actually took the time to tell their doctor they were struggling.
Think about all of the people in your life: all your friends and family members, co-workers and acquaintances. How many of them are negatively affected by stress on a daily basis? Luckily, the number of prescriptions for antianxiety drugs, such as benzodiazepines (including Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Clonazepam, and Klonopin) is on the rise. However, while these medications have helped millions of people manage their disorder and participate in a more “normalized” social life, the number of overdoses from these prescription drugs has also skyrocketed.
That’s why it’s so important to seek out more natural remedies to quell your anxious symptoms. Meditating, journaling and self-reflection, trying out new hobbies, and allocating time purely for yourself are among some of the most impactful therapies. But what seems to take the cake, when it comes to combatting excessive worrying, is exercise.
So how does exercise affect anxiety?
1. Being active directly affects the brain and body through endorphins.
Endorphins are those lovely little hormones that exist in our central nervous systems, and work naturally to relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure. Well, lucky for us, we now know that physical activity actually amplifies the release of these “feel-good” chemicals. In fact, endorphins may play a key role in the feeling of euphoria that long-distance runners experience, called “runners high.”
Also critical to our mental health is something called the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that’s held responsible for memory, emotion regulation, and learning. There are studies proving that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons. So, between these new neurons and the increase of endorphins, exercise can not only help with anxiety, it can also fight against depression.
2. Exercise helps us sleep.
We all know how important good sleep is to our overall well-being, and how anxiety can cause insomnia. Interestingly, new research also suggests that sleep deprivation can actually cause an anxiety disorder.
It seems to be no coincidence that the number of Americans who experience anxiety, 40 million to be exact, is the exact same number of Americans who suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health. If that’s not bad enough, an additional 20 million admit to sleeping problems occasionally.
A steady workout regimen not only allows us to fall asleep more easily, it transports us into a deeper slumber once we do.
3. When we work out, we are screen-free.
We live in a new world of instant gratification through ever-evolving and upgrading digital devices. While these gadgets were intended to make our lives easier, studies prove that excessive exposure can harm our physical, social, and mental health. Poor social skills, self-esteem, and an abundance of misinformation are all negative effects of technology; however, among the most dangerous is obesity.
When we go outside for a run, or hit the gym, we are forced to focus on the task at hand. We are no longer comparing ourselves to influencers on Instagram. We’re no longer scrolling mindlessly through Facebook and Twitter, or worrying about whether or not that guy or girl is ever going to text you back. Believe it or not but Social Media Anxiety is a real disorder, and according to the experts, almost 20% of people with social media accounts cannot go more than three hours without checking them. When you exercise, not only are you stretching out the body parts that suffer from using technology (like your lower back, neck and eyes), you are also directing your focus on something more important: your own well-being.
4. Exercise encourages us to set attainable goals and gives us something to work towards.
Less anxious people tend to be those who look into the future with optimism and excitement. When you set a goal, identifying exactly what you want to achieve, your brain starts visualizing it as being accomplished. Dopamine, another happy hormone, is then released into your bloodstream. Anxious people tend to put too much on their own plates. Their minds dwell on the mistakes of the past, and worry about the future. When you set realistic, physical goals for yourself – whether it be losing ten pounds, or building muscle – you set yourself up for success.
5. Exercise allows us to see physical and measurable results.
The biggest moment of relief – anxiety’s enemy – is stepping on a scale and realising you’ve finally achieved the goal you set out for yourself. Or running a marathon and realising your goal after training for months. People who are ridden with anxiety have a foggy image of success, and often oversee the moments in life that are worth celebrating. Body builders and athletes live for these moments and use them as inspiration to keep pushing.
6. Joining the gym or attending a class creates a social environment that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
When you work out, you become part of a community among like-minded people who are also working towards self-improvement. While we view social media as a way to network, there is no better way to communicate than verbally in real life. The fear that festers from anxiety can hold you back from pursuing personal interaction in your everyday life. That’s why working out in a social setting, whether it be yoga, or spin, or kickboxing, can ease you in.
7. Exercise shows what you and your body are capable of!
Working out forces us off the couch, where we’ve been binge watching Friends for three days and eating junk food to calm our nerves. It pulls us away from social media where we’ve been comparing our life to the glamorous façade of fifty others. And most importantly, with a little hard work and determination, it shows us that we are worthy and strong.
But don’t stress, and start small. In fact, psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. So, get out there and do it. You’ll be happy that you did.
Who is the author?
Sarah Williams is a full time blogger and a huge nutrition freak. She loves to advise people on achieving better bodies, well-nourished minds and sparkling dating life. She shares her advice in Wingman Magazine.