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Anxiety Disorders

How To Create An Exercise Routine To Beat Anxiety Symptoms

Countless studies suggest that moderate physical activity improves mental health and psychological well being (studies here). But this is a general consideration that applies to the majority of us.

What about those who suffer from anxiety disorders?

This article is meant to explain to you why exercise is good for your anxiety and how to make exercise a regular habit

Long-term benefits of exercise

Exercise equips your body to handle the stress derived from continuous worry. 

The key is to be consistent. Exercise is a good stressor for your body, but continuous stress and anxiety are bad stressors. But your body doesn’t make the difference in the first instance. So if you exercise regularly, your body will adapt and it will learn to handle anxiety and stress easier. Thus, anxiety symptoms will affect you less.

Also, studies suggest that exercise works as an antidepressant.

”The efficacy of exercise in patients seems generally comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medication and both tend to be better than the placebo in patients with MDD. Placebo response rates were high, suggesting that a considerable portion of the therapeutic response is determined by patient expectations, ongoing symptom monitoring, attention, and other nonspecific factors.”  

Blumenthal, James A et al, 2007

It’s interesting to see also how your expectations influence the effects of exercise over your mood and your anxiety, as per the observation above. Also, the same study confirmed that even individuals with no group support can benefit from the effects of exercise.

„Our findings showed that there was no difference in remission rates between patients who exercised in a supervised group setting and those who exercised on their own.”

Blumenthal, James A et al, 2007

Exercise challenges depression and anxiety because implies action. Depression is mainly sustained by passivity while anxiety thrives on avoidance of uncomfortable situations. When you exercise regularly you start to embrace action and movement. Thus, instead of staying in bed the whole day, you would dress up and go out running. Just this simple step gives you more control over your life.

Exercise makes you go and do the uncomfortable thing (yes, exercise is uncomfortable especially at the beginning because requires effort). Then you learn that facing the source of anxiety helps you overcome the challenge. Then you will feel good about yourself and next time you will have more willpower to do difficult tasks rather than avoiding them.

Short-term benefits of exercise

Exercise lifts your mood

The same study explains that the efficacy of exercise stands in its power to give you the satisfaction of completing a task successfully. Besides, exercise promotes positive thoughts and distracts you from your daily ruminations.

Less emotional eating! Because exercise elevates your mood and your tolerance to anxiety, you will start to use food less as an emotional comforter and more as a source of nourishment. You won’t need to eat an entire bag of cookies to feel good about yourself.

No matter what happens in your life, exercise is there to help you handle everything

While the general effects of exercise are highly positive, each individual will have a different journey. Some people can replace therapy or medication after a certain time of regular exercise but some have better results if they combine exercise with medication and / or therapy. 

So, please do not feel discouraged if you still need professional support. Also, in certain cases, exercise cannot replace medication. For example, if you have suicidal thoughts and no matter how much exercise you do, you still cannot handle the thoughts, the first step is to seek professional help.

What if I tried to exercise in the past but I didn’t succeed?

Sometimes if we fail at something, we tend to give up because if we try again and still fail, the frustration, guilt and shame will worsen. That’s why it’s easier to say ‘Exercise is not for me. I tried countless times.’ or ‘I suck at sports’. But if you failed, it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Your actions failed and not you.

Let’s see what factors ‘helped’ you to give up:

1. Thinking it will be easy and simple.

30 minutes a day for 3 times a week sounds relatively easy to implement.

But what happens when you have a 9-5 job and you are tired to wake up at 5 am to go running, come back, shower, prepare for job and travel to the workplace?

You would think ‘I will do it in the evening.’ But evening comes and you get home at 6 pm and your bed is way more inviting than going out running.

Or let’s say you manage to it early in the morning or late in the evening but because you are a beginner you feel tired and you think this is not going to work on the long-term.

Well, a good plan means taking into consideration all life demands and intrusion and finding practical ways to cope with them.

2. Daydreaming about how much weight you will lose in X time without taking into consideration the effort that you will have to make.

If your exercise goal was to look more attractive you will find a bit daunting the fact that results are not immediate and you will need to have patience to get the rewards. It’s important to have realistic expectations before embarking on this journey of exercise. Still, the mood-boosting effects are immediate in comparison with the weight loss results.

Wanting the reward now.

Strongly connected with the above factor, impatience or inability to put the hard work before reaping the fruit is a major hindrance in being successful with your fitness plans.

That’s why exercising with your mental health as your main goal will get you there. You don’t have to wait that long to ease anxiety and feel good about yourself. Plus, if you do it for fun, you will be able to stick with it and be more flexible. So if you don’t exercise today you won’t feel guilty or anxious that you might gain weight. And when you least expect you will see that physical changes will start to show because you didn’t give up and you managed to maintain an active lifestyle.

WARNING – feeling good happens mostly after exercising

So what do you do if you don’t feel like touching heaven during the exercise?

To be honest, I struggle with running because sometimes it’s difficult to breathe or my legs feel like lead. Also, my mind is constantly challenging me, whispering what a loser I am for being there and running like a turtle.

But it’s normal to struggle if the exercise is too demanding for you. Thus, it is better to start with exercises that you can handle and then increase the difficulty. This way you will be motivated to continue and you will make progress.

Also, don’t compare yourself with others. I tend to do this especially when someone outruns me. I criticise myself so much and then I lose all the motivation. It is important to remember that each of us is on a different point in their journey and our bodies have different ways of handling physical effort. This idea will help you feel less anxious particularly when it comes to exercising with others around.

Your anxious mind will tell you that they are judging you and they think you are fat, unfit or a loser. This is the first killer of fun. Try to remember that usually, people think about themselves and rarely pay attention to others. Especially if they exercise too, they will be focused on their workout and not yours. 

I suffer from the same thing. I avoid gyms like plague, I workout only in my room and I run usually early in the morning when people are waking up. 

Motivation tips

Manipulate your environment.

In the book Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, the authors come up with an interesting idea about motivation. You don’t have to look for motivation within yourself.

Prepare your workout clothes

Many times is hard to get motivation out of nowhere. So they explain that you can make changes to your environment to support your exercise routine. For example, if you decide to run early in the morning you could sleep early and prepare your exercise clothes beforehand so you can find them easily the following morning. When it comes to your exercise clothes, it’s important to use them only for exercise. This way your mind will associate them with movement and when you take them on you will already feel a little push to exercise.

Another example is to prepare a delicious breakfast to have after your run as a reward for your effort.

Also, make a schedule at the beginning of the week with the exact time you plan to exercise each day. Think of the weather if you run, or the time you need to exercise and shower to be ready for the next task of the day.

Treat exercise as an important person in your life that you meet regularly throughout the week.

In the same book, there is a concept called ‘the effort muscle’ that sustains your motivation. The problem is that if you use that muscle to push yourself to wake up at 5 am to run, you might not have enough energy to use later at work to make a complete a difficult task.

By having small strategies, your motivation will flow easier and you will conserve energy for things that require your self-control.

Pay attention to your inner dialogue.

You are here to read how exercise relieves your anxiety. Yet the very thing that feeds your anxiety can feed your lack of motivation too. I am talking about thoughts that label experiences inaccurately.

For example, if I struggle more than usual with my running I tend to think it was a bad run. But this is just a narrow perspective that fails to take in consideration that I chose to get out despite craving for more sleep and I managed to complete my run successfully. I may not have been fast but I pushed myself to do something I did not want in the beginning. Or if you feel like taking the day off, take it! You are not a loser just because you take a break. 

If you suffer from anxiety, you know how it is when old thoughts play their tune. They have power over your mind because you accepted them as truth for a long time now.

It is important to step back as soon as you have a negative thought and evaluate it. ‘Is this true? How?’

Many times these thoughts come like an avalanche and you may feel overwhelmed. Before you get a chance to evaluate one thought, there is another and another coming up.

A good idea is to write down your thoughts as soon as you have a chance. Afterwards, take each thought and ask yourself how much evidence you can find that sustains that thought. Because writing slows down your thinking process, you feel like having a break from your usual ruminations. This will help you clear your mind.

What is the perfect time to exercise?

Exercise was found to be a time cue for our circadian system. The circadian system is our brain clock that keeps our body in sync with the cycle of day and night. Light, food, noise and temperature are the basic external cues that fine-tune our behaviour during the day. And exercise was found to be such a time cue. This means that you can use exercise as a mean to foster your circadian rhythm

‘The exercise stimulus modifies the internal environment in a manner that allows systemic signalling to the circadian coordinating centres of the brain.’

Lewis, Philip, et al, 2018

These short-duration performances present a common characteristic to be better in the afternoon (e.g. the diurnal maximum is almost always found between 16:00 and 20:00 hours) than in the morning (e.g., the diurnal minimum is almost always found between 06:00 and 10:00 hours) – for anaerobic exercises like weight lifting, sprinting, and jumping = require a high amount of effort for a short time and you don’t consume as much oxygen as you for aerobic exercises like running or cycling.

Chtourou, Hamdi, and Nizar Souissi, 2012

On the other hand, the above study explains the following about aerobic exercise.

‘A greater improvement appeared to occur at the same time of day at which high-intensity training is regularly performed’.

Chtourou, Hamdi, and Nizar Souissi, 2012

Bear in mind that these studies were focused on performance.

Exercise in the morning

Don’t let your sleepy mind ruin the plans made by an awake mind.  

Now, if the morning is your choice for exercise, you may find difficult sometimes to get up and leave your warm, comfy bed. It’s ok so don’t feel guilty or discouraged if some mornings are difficult. Studies have shown that because body temperature is at its lowest in the morning, you won’t find easy to exercise as you do in the afternoon when the body temperature is at its peak.

Be patient and kind to yourself. First focus to get up and then to wash your face and then to dress up until you are ready for your exercise. Step by step, push by push. If you feel that your body is weak in the beginning, take it easy and intensify the exercise according to how you feel.

Take a few minutes in the evening to visualize yourself exercising the next morning. It’s a nice mental preparation so in the morning you won’t feel discouraged by the alarm clock but excited for your workout.

Most of the times you win the mind game just by getting out of bed. Other times you should remember the good feeling you will have the whole day after exercise. It is like a perfume that stays with you throughout the day.

Expect negative chatter to arise. Your mind won’t lose the chance to undermine your goals. A good idea is to prepare a list of affirmations to have them available in the morning. Below you have some examples but it is better if you create them because you will resonate much stronger with your words.

‘It takes only a few minutes and I will start feeling good about exercise.’

‘I feel sluggish but the exercise will energize me. I will start easy and I will increase the effort if I feel I can do it.’

‘Exercise helps me handle anxiety and stress much easier.’

‘I will love the shower afterwards.’

‘I will have a delicious cup of coffee and a nice breakfast when I am done.’

‘Slow or fast, far or not, I am a winner because I am doing it.’

Exercise in the afternoon

Some people on social media created a word for the short run during their lunch break! RUNCH.

To be honest, I think this is the most challenging time to run. Physically, you may be at your peak, according to the studies mentioned previously. What I find difficult though is to interrupt my work to focus on exercising and then return to my work.

Plus, my anxious mind is always obsessed with TIME – ‘what if I don’t have enough time to make it until my break finishes?’. If you are working from home and you are running on your treadmill or you are doing a workout inside, that is feasible, but running to or from work it can be challenging. The authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety explain that exercise helps you focus better and boosts your problem-solving ability. So in the end, a RUNCH might not be such a bad idea.

‘The combined results of 29 studies that tracked the exercise habits and cognitive functions of over 2,000 people found that aerobic exercise improved attention, mental processing speed, and memory, even in people over 70 years of age.’

Otto, Michael W., et al., 2007

Exercise in the evening

Exercising from work to home (running, biking, rollerblading) has its benefits:

  • Your comfy bed won’t entice you to postpone your exercise.
  • You won’t waste time in traffic or waiting for your bus
  • You will get home with a better mood

Sometimes exercise from work to home is not feasible so you can do it when you arrive home. To be honest, I find exercising in the evening to be the most challenging because I am exhausted mentally and my motivation muscle is depleted. But is still possible as long as you think ahead of the excuses you might come with when is the time to exercise.

For example, you may be hungry and eager to eat. Or you may feel you had a long day and as a reward, you postpone your workout. Expect for these thoughts to arise and equip yourself with the right answers ‘I am tired but I still can do a bit of exercise. I will feel so good afterwards.’ or ‘I will start with 5 minutes. I am sure by then I will feel good enough to do 10 more.’

Again, prepare your own affirmations to counteract discouraging thoughts.

FINAL WARNING – you will get bored

During the first weeks of exercise, you will feel like on a honeymoon. You are doing something new; you incorporate a new habit in your life and you start to feel better and anxiety is easier to overcome.

Slowly but surely, you will cease to feel so excited about the upcoming exercise session. You may find excuses for not doing it and you may feel disappointed a bit.

Well, the answer is simple. Put some colour into the greyish landscape. In other words, brainstorm ideas for what you could differently during your exercise sessions so you rekindle the ‘lost love’.

Ideas could include planning a new music playlist or not listening to music at all, changing the running route, buying new gear like running shoes, or challenging yourself to exercise in the morning if you always do it in the evening and vice versa. The sky is the limit. Just come up with ideas that will make you feel excited for the exercise tomorrow.

Personally, the routine is my ally. I like it because it gives me confidence and stability. But sometimes, just a tiny change gives me a fresh desire to go running or workout.

For example, I noted that sometimes I don’t pay that much attention to the music in my ears. So I ran one day without headphones and the following day with music. When I run without headphones, I miss the music and its rhythm, but I enjoy the silence of the early morning, the singing of birds, the wind, nature. When I run listening to music, I am more focused inwards; I listen to a bit to the lyrics of the songs and then I start to have ideas about different things. This strategy helped me to put a bit of salt and pepper on my exercise dish without disrupting the routine I cling to. But the most important is the fact that I combine running outdoor with workout indoors.

I hope that you found this article helpful and you feel more motivated to incorporate an exercise routine in your life. Anxiety will feel less debilitating after a short time.

Hi! I'm Maria and I am a mental health advocate! I am determined to learn as much as I can about mental and emotional wellbeing.

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