We know that exercise is a boon for our mental, physical and emotional health. And it’s particularly helpful for easing anxiety. “[M]oderate exercise has been shown to have a significant effect on anxiety and mood,” said Marla Deibler, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC.
For instance, exercise reduces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. And it stimulates the production of feel-good endorphins.
It also leads to an increase in activity levels in the serotonergic system, which may help to decrease anxiety and improve mood, Deibler said.
Plus, “moderate to intense exercise raises core body temperature, which is accompanied by a simultaneous reduction in muscle tension, thereby affecting the experience of anxiety.”
So if all this can help, how can you motivate yourself to do more of it?
Recently, researchers have been exploring another hypothesis behind the benefits of exercise in easing anxiety: Inflammation and oxidative and nitrogen stress (O&NS) may play a role in contributing to anxiety, while exercise may act as “anti-inflammatory and anti-O&NS agent,” according to the authors.
So, whether you struggle with occasional anxiety or a diagnosable disorder, exercise can help. It’s a powerful part of your self-care routine and an effective adjunct to anxiety treatment. Below, experts shared how to make the most of movement in minimizing your anxiety.
1. Find Activities You Enjoy
According to the experts, the best physical activities are the ones you actually enjoy doing and will continue doing. “With the exception of yoga, which has specifically been shown to be helpful, research does not specify what activities are better than others [for anxiety],” said Deibler, who also pens the Psych Central blog “Therapy That Works.”
So what are your favorite ways to move? What activities did you love to do as a child? What just sounds like fun to you? What activities have you always wanted to try?
Ideally, you can participate in physical activities “at least five times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes,” said Maura Mulligan, LICSW, the director of the Center for Wellness at Wentworth Institute of Technology. But you can start by figuring out what activities you’d like to do at least three times a week.
You might not notice significant improvement in your anxiety right away. It might take regular exercise — three to five times a week — for several weeks, she said. To observe your improvement, Mulligan suggested journaling your symptoms for four to six weeks.
2. Sample a Variety of Activities
Mulligan encouraged readers “to try many different activities and to not give up if one or two are not well received.” Think of this as an experiment that’ll help you explore your exercise likes and dislikes and boost your well-being.
For instance, yoga is “very helpful in having individuals focus on breathing techniques and quieting their mind, which are useful skills in anxiety reduction.”
Other activities you might try, she said, are: swimming, running, dancing, taking long walks, hiking and participating in classes at the gym. Also, here’s a list of activities you can enjoy in the warmer weather.
And, again, remember to focus on activities that feel good for you. “What works for one person may not be useful or enjoyable for another.”
3. Practice Meditation
“You can meditate inside or outside, any time of day or night, as long as you won’t be disturbed.”
Meditation isn’t about eliminating your thoughts. It’s about learning “to observe them and let them go.” The easiest place to start is probably your breath.
Start by simply noticing your breath “coming and going.” Another option is to count your breaths to 10, and then begin at 1. Whenever your mind naturally wanders, just start counting again, she said.
Naumburg also suggested starting with just two minutes of meditating a day. “If you can do that for a few days in a row, bump it up to three or four minutes.” Also, learn the language of mindfulness, she said. Check out Mindful.org and Susan Salzberg’s book Real Happiness, which includes audio of guided meditations.
Physical activities are a healthy way to minimize anxiety. Remember that the key is to find activities you genuinely enjoy, and practice them regularly. Here are additional tips on finding the joy in movement.