There’s no denying that exercise can be good for our physical health, but can it also have a positive effect on our mental wellbeing? Can we actually pound the pavement toward less stress?
Anxiety is an issue that many people struggle with. In Australia, more than 2 million people (about 14% of the population) experience anxiety in any given year, while in the UK, one study found that more than 4% of the population experience anxiety in any given week.
For some people, anxiety can often feel like you’re about to have a heart attack. Your chest gets tight, your heart rate increases, you can start to sweat excessively, you get stomach aches and sometimes you feel dizzy. Your skin can also feel really sensitive, and you may struggle to eat and sleep. Anxiety can take over your body both physically and emotionally.
Anxiety is an internalising disorder, which means you often want to withdraw from things that you previously enjoyed, like socialising with others or exercising. Anxiety can leave you feeling drained, and when you’re in the depths of it, exercise is usually the last thing you feel like doing.
But what if exercise could actually be a good thing for helping you deal with your anxiety?
There is lots of research on the physical benefits of exercise but increasingly research is also being done on the role that exercise may play in mental wellbeing, and in particular anxiety.
While we still need to do more research, some reviews suggest that exercise may have a positive impact on reducing anxiety and that it may also help some people manage panic attacks and panic disorder.
One review of the research suggests that exercise may be as effective in reducing anxiety as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is considered the ‘gold standard’ in therapeutic treatment. However, it was found exercise was not as effective as taking anti-anxiety or antidepressant medicines.
While we know exercise has benefits for your overall health and wellbeing, it is not certain exactly how exercise may help to reduce your anxiety, or exactly how much exercise you need to do to reduce your anxiety.
Another influencing factor may be the importance of having people around you when you exercise who can encourage and motivate you to keep you on track. And that in turn may lead to a greater impact on your anxiety levels. In fact, social support in general is a great way for keeping anyone on track in life.
Does this mean we can throw out all our medications and therapies and just exercise to feel good?
Not quite, say UK researchers. While they suggest that exercise may have a positive effect on people with anxiety, they recommend that exercise should be used to complement traditional medication, lifestyle changes and behavioural therapy regimes, rather than replace them to have the greatest effect on reducing anxiety symptoms.
While it is not possible to out-run anxiety entirely, exercise can be an important part of the treatment and recovery process. It’s not about out-running your anxiety, it’s about understanding it, and learning what activities and strategies may help you manage it. You might find our article 'Five tips on managing anxiety
You might also like our article 'Anxiety and alcoholics - how the two can merge into one'
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