It is well known that exercise helps lighten your mood and has plenty of positive benefits for health, but what about anxiety?

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the UK, however it is often under-reported by people and under treated.

It is reported that 4.7% of the UK population have diagnosable anxiety problems, and 1 in 5 people report feeling anxious all or a lot of the time. Also women tend to suffer from it more than men.

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But what is anxiety? And how can exercise help?

There are two types of anxiety: state and trait.

State Anxiety

State anxiety is the unpleasant feelings that are associated with anxiety that arise from being confronted with specific situations, demands or a particular event. For example, feeling anxious before a big race or feeling anxious because of a particular social situation.

What happens is the brain makes a ‘risk assessment’ of most situations, subconsciously, and when it perceives a situation to be potentially threatening (for a variety of different reasons, they don’t have to be logical!), then the body releases a catalogue of hormones, which can lead to feelings of anxiety.

The good thing about state anxiety is that when you are then out of the situation, the anxiety goes away.

This kind of anxiety is very common, and most people would have felt this at sometime or another. Many sources state that a little bit of this kind of anxiety is necessary, but not in large doses.

Trait Anxiety

Trait anxiety is similar to state anxiety, as in it arises to a perceived potential (or actual) threat. The thing about trait anxiety is that it is more about the differences in state anxiety from one person to another.

I’m sure we all know somebody who tends to get more anxious than other people in the same situation. They would be said to have higher levels of trait anxiety. It is more of a personality characteristic.

People who have high levels of trait anxiety tend to have much higher levels of state anxiety, and state anxiety tends to be more frequent.

This, like state, anxiety, may be good for you in small doses however there is a level (which massively varies from individual to individual) in which these higher levels of anxiety can have a massively detrimental effect on wellbeing.

How Exercise Can Help

Endorphins.

The release of endorphins post exercise has been well studied and written about. Basically they make you feel euphoric and stress levels go down (if only we could bottle this!). The mixture of lower stress and feelings of euphoria will undoubtedly lead to lower levels of anxiety, and can give you a feeling of being able to deal with problems better.

It is a temporary feeling post exercise, whether or not it is aerobic training or weight training.

Head Space.

Exercise has the potential to give you a bit of headspace, especially if you are the type of person who thinks about everything all of the time.

That head space can give you time to essentially chill out a bit mentally, which can make things clearer when you then start to think about the other stuff again.

This is essentially a Buddhist principle, and has the same basic science as meditation: or the ability to clear your mind and not think about anything bar one thing (a common meditation practice is to just think about your breathing and nothing else, and people literally spend lifetimes trying to master it!).

This probably wouldn’t work as well in weight training as it would in cardio training (especially co-ordinated group exercise), as there tend to be a lot of periods in weight training where you are not doing anything (in between sets, for example) and the potential to think about all of the other things is higher.

Cardio, on the other hand, is generally continuous so you can focus on the task at hand and that only, which should clear you head out a bit.

If you really want to clear your head of the millions of thoughts about millions of things, try a co-ordinated group exercise class (like BodyCombat or aerobics).

exercise helps anxiety2

It has been well reported that people who are doing this class don’t have the ability to think about anything else as they are completely focused on what the next move is and co-ordinating their bodies!

Change in Environment.

Generally, a change in environment can completely change the levels of state anxiety quickly.

For example, if work is stressing you out, then removing yourself from the office will decrease anxiety levels (remember that state anxiety is brought on from potentially threatening situations, so by removing yourself from the situation, the anxiety levels decrease).

This doesn’t have to be a gym; it just needs to be somewhere where the problems aren’t. One example that we can all relate to is going on holiday. Who doesn’t feel less anxious when they arrive that their holiday destination?

We have removed ourselves from the environment, so anxiety levels decrease. But we can’t go on holiday every time we get anxious (if only.).

Going out for a run is a great way of getting away for a while, plus the benefits from the exercise will lower state anxiety levels, or going to the gym.

Control

This is a very commonly reported thing with people who displays high levels of both state and trait anxiety: they feel like at times they are not in control.

Exercise gives you a way of having control over something in your life, especially at times when you feel that there is little control anywhere else. Being in the gym doing your thing is completely in your control, which will lower state anxiety levels dramatically.

On the flip side, and this especially applies if you are a mid-high level manager of executive, exercise can be a way of giving up control.

If you are in a position at work or in your personal life where you have to make all the decisions and people come to you with problems all the time, then exercising could be a way of being in a situation where nobody wants anything from you and nobody is going to hassle you.

A lot of people have a personal trainer or go to group exercise classes for that reason; the trainer is in charge, wont hassle you personally (or they shouldn’t be if they are!) and you can just let go for a while and let somebody else take charge.

A decrease in depression symptoms

This has been well documented over the last half- decade, ever since Morgan, who was working in a psychiatric hospital in 1969, observed that patients who were more physically active were less clinically depressed that the ones who were not so active, people have known that exercise relieves the symptoms of depression.

Depression is a big deal, and shouldn’t have the stigma attached to it that is currently does. Depression is closely linked to anxiety disorders, so a decrease in depression can have a positive effect in levels of anxiety, because both of them are hand in hand.

The Bottom Line

Exercise reduces anxiety levels, increases feelings of happiness, and decreases the chances of a variety of different medical conditions. It doesn’t have be a lot of exercise; it doesn’t have to be in a swanky expensive gym. It can be as little as going out for a walk at lunchtime or playing football with the kids on an evening.

Anxiety is closely linked with a variety of other mental health issues, most of which can be helped by some sort of physical activity (mostly aerobic based rather than weight training based), so get off the sofa, go for a walk, play games with the kids, and both your physical and psychological wellbeing will improve.

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