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Often, exercise can feel like the very last thing you feel like doing. When I first started using exercise to help with anxiety, I knew it was something I should be doing. So why was it still so hard? One thing that helped me was knowing exactly what exercise does to my body and why it works in defeating anxiety. I’d like to share this with you and I hope it helps with your motivation too.

In this article we’ll look at:

What the science says

We all know about the physical benefits of exercise. Exercise is good for our bodies and helps to fight disease. But of course, exercise is now considered vital for your mind too.

Studies have shown that exercise is very effective at reducing anxiety symptoms. It  helps you to feel less tired, improves alertness and concentration and also improves cognitive function.

Did you know that humans can turn on the stress response by thought alone? We can get stressed or anxious just by thinking about a stressful situation.

Cortisol, the “stress hormone”, is released by the adrenal glands when we experience fear or stress. It’s part of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism. Once the alarm to release cortisol has sounded, your body becomes ready to run away or fight. The problem is, these days the threat is often a mental rather than a physical one.

The problem with that?

There is no physical release of fight or flight. And so cortisol levels build up in the blood, which ends up causing chronic stress and anxiety.

Gentle exercise is a way of lowering cortisol levels. Going for a walk is great way to start.

Did you know humans can turn on the stress response by thought alone?

Endorphins, serotonin and dopamine

Physical activity releases endorphins – the “feel good” hormone in our body. It acts as a natural painkiller and triggers a positive feeling in the body. This helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It is also accompanied by a positive and energising outlook on life.

Endorphins also act as a sedative, which helps to improve the ability to fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep. This in turn helps to combat anxiety.

In addition, exercise increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which works as a natural antidepressant.

Lastly, exercise increases the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that activates the reward centre of the brain. Dopamine is released in response to any form of pleasure, from food to exercise (even if you don’t think of exercise as being particularly pleasurable).

Just from exercise we are producing these three powerful chemicals: endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. So it is no surprise that regular exercise is linked with lower stress and anxiety as well as enhanced mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Above all, be kind to yourself. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up

How much exercise do I need to do to combat anxiety? And how often do I need to do it?

I know what you’re thinking: “This is all very interesting Sam but I only have one question for you: what exactly is the minimum amount of exercise do I need to do to reap these benefits?”

Well the good news, is that about five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

Having said that, the key for exercise to be effective against anxiety is for it to be regular. Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise decreases overall levels of tension. It also elevates and stabilises mood, improves sleep, and improves self-esteem. The reality is, physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people.

And you don’t have to hit the gym or go for a run. There have been many studies showing that 30 minutes of moderate exercise (eg. brisk walking) per day, 5 days a week, is enough. Walking has been proven to significantly improve anxiety and in some cases cause it to go into remission.

Studies have found that those who participate in even more exercise, with 4 more vigorous, 30-minute sessions per week have low levels of anxiety. (All participants in The Nurture Project slowly increase their activity levels during the program to reach this target by the end.)

Vitamin D

Walking outside will expose you to vitamin D, known as the “sunshine” vitamin. It is an essential fat-soluble nutrient which helps to keep bones healthy and strong, helps cell growth, and benefits immune function.

Our bodies absorb vitamin D primarily through sun exposure.

Studies have shown a link between vitamin D deficiency and depression. Researchers behind a 2013 meta-analysis noticed that study participants with depression also had low vitamin D levels. The same analysis found that people with low vitamin D were at a much greater risk of depression. The researchers believe that because vitamin D is important to brain function, insufficient levels may play a role in depression and other mental illnesses.

An earlier 2005 study identified vitamin D receptors in the same areas of the brain associated with depression.

Ideally we would have sun exposure for around 20 minutes per day.

The most important thing to remember

Be kind to yourself. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you do not manage to do everything you had hoped. After all, some psychologists studying exercise to help with anxiety suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout.

Some studies show that exercise can work quickly to elevate a depressed mood. Although the effects may be temporary, they demonstrate that a brisk walk or other simple physical activity can deliver several hours of relief. Similar to taking a paracetamol for a headache.

And if you can’t, don’t worry about that either. Just pick yourself up and try again the next day.

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