Rehab & Recovery Zone!

Using Exercise to Manage Anxiety

By: Emma Darnley

There is no doubt that exercise plays an important role in rehabilitation following a physical injury or illness, but there is also growing evidence that working out can improve your mental wellness as well. Indeed, there is interest in using fitness training to both prevent and treat anxiety1. This is particularly relevant as anxiety affects around 40 million US adults and is the most common form of mental health problem2. While exercise is not usually one of the standard treatments for anxiety disorders, evidence for its effectiveness and the fact that it avoids the problems associated with anti-anxiety medications makes it an increasingly attractive option for managing symptoms.

Dangers of Anti-anxiety Medications

The two mainstream treatments for managing anxiety are drugs and talking therapies3. Cognitive behavioral therapy is especially helpful for reducing anxious thoughts, as it helps sufferers to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and change these. Certainly, taking medication without receiving psychological interventions is less likely to offer an effective long-term strategy for managing anxiety, as these drugs mask symptoms without treating their underlying cause. However, this isn't the only reason to proceed carefully when it comes to anti-anxiety medication. As with many other tablets, those used to treat anxiety bring with them a range of potential side-effects. For instance, if you are prescribed an antidepressant, these can cause problems that range from digestive upset to difficulty with sleep. Meanwhile, benzodiazepines, more commonly known as anti-anxiety pills, can trigger headaches, blurred vision, confusion and even nightmares. It is also useful to know that benzodiazepines are addictive, so you may struggle to withdraw from their use and sometimes this even requires specialist addiction treatment. While anti-anxiety drugs have their place, in cases of mild to moderate anxiety you may prefer to explore using exercise alongside psychological treatments.

Aerobic Activity Eases Anxiety

Of the various different types of exercise, aerobic activities (also referred to as cardio exercise) are best known for their ability to reduce anxious symptoms. You may already have experience of this if you have felt more relaxed after an aerobic training session. There are several ways that this type of activity can help you to feel calmer. For example, working out aerobically reduces levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which are two of your body's stress hormones4. Your body also releases endorphins and other mood enhancing brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, which additionally helps to relax you. However, looking beyond biochemical changes within your body, a phenomenon known as muscular meditation, where you move your muscles in a rhythmic and repetitive way, has a calming effect. Equally, achieving your fitness goals can indirectly reduce anxiety levels by enhancing your self-esteem and confidence and taking part in exercise also serves as a useful distraction from your worries. Working on your aerobic fitness isn't the only way to ease the symptoms of anxiety though.

Resistance Training Aids Relaxation

There is also convincing evidence that resistance exercise, whether you use weights or you use your bodyweight to create resistance, is a useful treatment strategy for people suffering from anxiety. However, it is worth bearing in mind that studies show that moderate intensity resistance training offers greater benefits in terms of reducing anxious feelings than more intense training5. A range of theories have been put forward for how this type of fitness training can create feelings of calm. For instance, as with aerobic training, resistance exercise can induce the same positive biochemical changes within your body. However, there is also evidence that resistance training has a beneficial impact on the structure of your brain and nervous system, increasing production of nerve cells and the blood vessels that support them. This has the potential to enhance mental function and improve the delivery of nutrients vital for good mental well-being.

Balance and Flexibility Training Induces Calm

Exercises to improve your balance and flexibility are essential during recovery from an injury, but there is now evidence that these activities can also promote your mental wellness, which includes reducing anxious symptoms. Research has mainly focused on exercise such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates, which incorporate breathing exercise and mindfulness as well as stretching and moves to improve balance, and have a positive impact on anxiety levels6. However, it is plausible that other forms of activity that enhance balance and flexibility can also play a role in easing anxiety.

Resources

1 http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495
2 http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
3 http://my.clevelandclinic.org/neurological_institute/center-for-behavorial-health/disease-conditions/hic-anxiety-disorders.aspx
4 http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mens_Health_Watch/2011/February/exercising-to-relax
5 http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/RTandMentalHealth.html
6 http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=37406

(October 2014)