The physical benefits of exercise are well known, but many people still find it challenging to adopt and stick to a regular fitness routine. One of the most common reasons we give for not exercising is the stress of daily life. After a long day of dealing with work, kids or school, often the last thing we can imagine is hitting the gym. However, research shows that exercise is one of the first things we should turn to when we’re feeling stressed. Physical activity can help improve our mood and relieve anxiety.
How Does Exercise Reduce Anxiety?
Neurotransmitters are important chemicals which transmit signals throughout the nervous system. During physical exertion, neurotransmitters known as endorphins are released. These neurotransmitters decrease pain and cause feelings of euphoria, among other functions. You may have heard the expression “a runner’s high” to describe the elated feelings some people get from running. It’s more than just a colorful term. The endorphins released during running and other types of exercise contribute to a physiological response and feelings of happiness.
Exercise also diverts your attention from the issues causing your anxiety. It is a simple fact, when you are engaged in an activity like walking or swimming you are focusing on the task and on your body’s movements. Exercises like lifting weights, riding a bike or yoga demand that you give special focus to your physical form. Playing sports like tennis makes you concentrate and anticipate the next position of the ball, and group sports require you to concentrate on all of these things plus the positions of your teammates. Playing outside forces you to pay attention to your surroundings in order to remain safe, but even something as easy as stretching in the park allows you to take in the sights, sounds and smells around you. With all of this going on, you forget about what was worrying you in the first place.
Regular physical activity also allows you to develop a sense of confidence as you achieve your goals. Even if the goal is simply to take a walk three times a week, you feel good when you accomplish it. Lastly, exercise also has been shown to improve sleep. Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep makes symptoms of depression and anxiety worse, and can actually create a vicious cycle: you are stressed, so you don’t sleep, you don’t sleep and you feel more stress. Over time, being active breaks this cycle. You not only feel more in control of your body, but your life as well.
Creating A Suitable Exercise Plan
Talk to some professionals. Before beginning any exercise regimen, consider discussing it with your healthcare provider. This is especially true if your last exercise was some time ago (grade school PE anyone?), or if you have ongoing medical conditions.
Depending on what exercise you are considering, you might want to discuss your plan with a qualified personal trainer, yoga teacher, or some other fitness expert. They will help you set realistic starting points for your particular age and fitness level. You don’t have to join an expensive gym to get this advice. It is often less intimidating to start out in your own home, and a web search is the first step. The internet can provide scores of instructional and advice videos for beginners, intermediate level or advanced fitness. To give yourself the greatest odds of success, be sure to start with the activity that seems most interesting to you.
How To See Long Term Improvements
To unlock the stress busting benefits of long term exercise, the key is to stick with it. Start out with small, achievable goals, like just making it to the gym or the park a certain number of times per week. From there, set other goals to challenge and motivate yourself.
Joining forces with a friend can help you stay on track, and so can an array of exercise tracking apps. Check out a few and see what works best for you. Finally, remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. Taking a few 10 minute walks during the day is better than skipping it altogether because you cannot carve out an entire 30 minutes at one time.
This article comes with an important caveat for those who have been under chronic stress for a long time. If you are in the later stages of adrenal fatigue, strenuous exercise like running should be avoided at first. Start slowly, and see how your body reacts. If your energy levels crash in the 24 hours after you exercise, it’s likely that you need to scale back your exercise program. For those who are severely adrenally fatigued, simple exercises like walking are a great place to start.