Anxiety and Physical Fitness

Anxiety and Physical Fitness

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America. Every year, some 40 million Americans struggle to overcome anxiety and panic disorders. While there are many effective treatments, could adding a daily workout session be the cure?

Anxiety Disorders: The Most Common Mental Health Issue in America

We all get nervous or worry from time to time. But for those living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), constant worry, panic, and feeling on-edge are an everyday occurrence. Anxiety disorders, including GAD, phobias, and other anxiety-related illnesses, are the most common mental health issue in America. Some 40 million Americans will experience anxiety-related disorders every year, or about 18% of the adult population.

Someone facing anxiety will experience a sense of "heightened alert" and might experience severe symptoms several days a week. Anxiety disorder symptoms can vary but can include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • A sense of dread
  • Feeling like something terrible will happen
  • Inability to control worry
  • Nervousness, restlessness, and feeling tense
  • Sweating or heavy breathing
  • Weakness or tingling
  • Inability to concentrate or focus

Some people with anxiety disorders will also experience acute panic attacks, which can be serious.

How Physical Activity Can Help

There are many treatments available for those living with anxiety disorders. These treatments typically include medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy, which have been proven to lessen the severity and frequency of anxiety symptoms.

However, studies also show that physical activity can help decrease anxiety and panic symptoms, especially when added to medication and therapy. It's thought that physical movement helps distract our brains from the anxiety trigger and can help release tension in our bodies.

Physical activity also increases the "feel good" chemicals in our brains, which can help alleviate symptoms of depression (you can read more about that here!) Even a short 10-minute walk can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms for several hours.

Using Fitness to Treat Anxiety

While many doctors still rely on western medicine to treat anxiety (namely medications and cognitive behavioral therapy), many also recognize exercise as a tool to decrease symptoms.

Regular exercise (that is, at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day) can help reduce overall symptoms of depression. One study found that working out can even replace medication in some instances. When combined with therapy and medication, physical activity improved anxiety symptoms and outcomes for nearly all patients in the study.

Hitting the gym might be a good idea when you're feeling anxious, too. While regular, routine exercise can decrease symptoms over time, a good, old-fashioned sweat session while you're feeling anxious is also helpful. When you are experiencing a high-anxiety event, vigorous physical activity can help distract your thoughts, decrease tension, and lessen immediate anxiety symptoms for several hours.

Even more amazing? Exercise can literally change our brains. Working out activates the brain's frontal lobe, which in turn controls the amygdala (#anatomyclass). The amygdala is the part of our brains responsible for the "flight or fight" response – the same response that often overreacts and causes anxiety and panic. In short, exercise reprograms our brains to react less severely to perceived triggers, helping us overcome those panicked reactions.

Which exercise is best? Researchers say any activity is better than nothing at all. However, vigorous activity seems to yield better results than low-level activity. So lace up those shoes and get your sweat on!

Using Fitness to Treat Anxiety

We're all for a good sweat session, whether you're dealing with anxiety or not. And even though physical activity can significantly reduce anxiety symptoms, exercise might not be enough for everyone.

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about your options. You don't need to live with crippling anxiety: there are plenty of treatments available. Your doctor can prescribe medications to help with the symptoms. A licensed, experienced therapist can help you identify triggers and learn ways to cope with your anxiety.

Adding exercise to these medical interventions can help you get back to a healthy, happy life.

Have YOU dealt with anxiety disorders? Does physical activity help you? We want to hear your story! Drop us a message in the comments below.