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Can Exercise Cure Anxiety?

February 19, 2018

Most of the clients I see are reticent to take medication.  Either they're worried about side effects, don't want to pay the money, or have had a bad experience with it.  This is understandable.  Medication for anxiety can be a powerful tool in recovering from anxiety, but it's certainly not the only way, especially considering that exercise often outperforms medication in anxiety treatment.

 

Why would that be?  One theory is that exercise affects the neurotransmitters in our brains that contribute to anxiety.  For example, researchers at the University of California 

at Davis Medical Center found that exercise increased the level of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, both of which are depleted in the brains of patients with depression and anxiety.  

 

Beyond neurotransmitters, think of it logically.  Humans are animals.  We're meant to move.  Animals get anxious and depressed if they don't move.  (Think of a dog who has been crated all day.  Do they act their best?  Nope!)  The past few generations are the first generations in history that sit most of the day.  No wonder anxiety has skyrocketed.  Our human animal selves are in a very unnatural state behind a desk or on a couch staring at a screen.

 

So there's a lot of evidence (and common sense) to suggest that some people can exercise their way to calm.  But what about the people I see in my clinic who are avid runners and cyclists and still struggle?  The opposite is true too.  Chronic exercise that over-taxes or depletes the body can worsen anxiety.  I see this often in women who run marathons or do a lot of hot yoga.  They have very little body fat, their hormones are out of whack, and they're anxious as all get out.  (They look great, but who cares if you're crying and anxious all day?)  So keep it in check.  Just like too much medication can make you a zombie, too much exercise can make you feel nuts.  Everything in balance!

 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests the following for combatting anxiety with exercise:

  • 5 X 30: Jog, walk, bike, or dance three to five times a week for 30 minutes.

  • Set small daily goals and aim for daily consistency rather than perfect workouts. It's better to walk every day for 15-20 minutes than to wait until the weekend for a three-hour fitness marathon. Lots of scientific data suggests that frequency is most important.  

  • Find forms of exercise that are fun or enjoyable. Extroverted people often like classes and group activities. People who are more introverted often prefer solo pursuits.

  • Distract yourself with an iPod or other portable media player to download audiobooks, podcasts, or music. Many people find it’s more fun to exercise while listening to something they enjoy.

  • Recruit an “exercise buddy.” It's often easier to stick to your exercise routine when you have to stay committed to a friend, partner, or colleague.

  • Be patient when you start a new exercise program. Most sedentary people require about four to eight weeks to feel coordinated and sufficiently in shape so that exercise feels easier.

That said, if traditional exercise like running or biking or weights isn't your thing, don't despair.  Mayo Clinic says that any movement that gets your heart rate up counts as exercise and can help squash anxiety.   I've seen countless clients pick up yoga or even light walking with friends (or even WiiFit!) who have reduced their anxiety dramatically.  

 

So what's my verdict?  Based on what I've seen, exercise or movement of any form is a MUST if you want to overcome anxiety.  Addressing the underlying causes of your anxiety with an experienced anxiety therapist is essential too.  But these two things together are really a 1-2 punch.  It may not be that exercise can 100% cure anxiety, but you'd be hard pressed to find a person who successfully treated their anxiety naturally without incorporating movement in their lives in some way.  

 

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