Exercise for the anxious

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable”

Jillian Michaels


Exercise for the AnxiousI have spoken about the importance of getting good regular exercise in a number of posts.

It is certainly something I am very passionate about.

On the drive home from the gym last night I was trying to work out what percentage of my recovery was down to the exercise I do.

I knew it was a large contributing factor, but it wasn’t easy to work out by how much.

My first guess was 30%, then I thought, maybe it’s even 40%.

It couldn’t be any higher right, how could I think half or even more than half was just down to exercise?

And you’re right, I didn’t.

I finally settled on the number, it was 100%.

Now before you start thinking I believe that all you need to do is exercise regularly to recover from anxiety, I don’t.

But what I do believe is this:

Getting your physical health in check is key to achieving good mental health.

This doesn’t mean you need to be in the same shape as an athlete or able to run a marathon, but if you’re feeling out of breath by the time you’ve got to the top of your stairs then it’s likely that you’ve been overlooking your physical health for far too long.

It’s not rocket science.

If you feel in bad physical shape, how do you expect it is going to transfer onto your mental health?

Why is exercise for the anxious so important?

There are many benefits to exercise when it comes to anxiety, but one part stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Exercises teaches you to be ok with your anxiety

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it is, because it’s only when you are ok with your anxiety and stop caring about it that you start to feel better.

It allows you to get on with your life and to stop your anxiety from limiting it.

Physical exercise is the best way I know to teach yourself how to do this.

It works because of two major factors:

  1. When you get stuck into a workout you quickly break the cycle of anxious thinking and this shows you that despite your anxiety you are still able to get on and do things
  2. It shows you that a racing heart is nothing to be afraid of – this can take a little more time to overcome and I will go into it in a little more detail later on.

You will also find that taking part in regular exercise does the following:

  • Teaches you discipline and self control, vital in making sure you continue to make the right choices for your anxiety
  • Releases feel good endorphins which lift your mood afterwards and can help you keep on track for the rest of the day
  • Helps you eat more healthily, you’re less likely to eat a load of fast food after you’ve just put a lot of effort into burning off some calories
  • Helps you feel alive, you realise you can push yourself to do things you didn’t think you could
  • Is great for stress relief and letting off steam – anxiety itself is a stress on your body, recovery comes when you are able to stop seeing anxiety as a stress, exercise helps do this as well as reduce stress from other areas of your life.

I have mentioned many of these benefits before in my article on running for beginners, but they are certainly worth stating again.

This combination of benefits is why I believe that 100% of the reason I am where I am today is because of the exercise I started and continue to do.

Of course there are many other factors at play which are involved in feeling well again. However, of all the things I did, it was the exercise and getting in to good physical health which enabled me to achieve everything else.

Exercise can help very quickly with your anxiety, but it is the longer term goal of good health which you should be aiming for.

No matter who you are, how little or how much anxiety you have, if you do not have your health, everything else just pales in comparison.

However, exercise can for many with anxiety be a trigger for a panic attack.

Exercise and the feelings of panic   

One of the main reasons people seem to shy away from exercise is they fear it will bring on a panic attack, I was no different.

Whenever my heart would start to race, even just a little, my thoughts always turned to the fear of it being an impending panic attack.

But exercise for those with anxiety and prone to panic attacks can be done without triggering it, and I’m going to explain how I did it.

After six years of smoking, drinking and poor eating through my college and University years I had certainly let my health and fitness slip.

I’d never really put on much weight, but it didn’t take me much to get out of breath and I always felt pretty lethargic.

When I was younger I used to play football 3 or 4 times a week and I really missed it.

After University I moved to South Wales for my first job and decided it was about time I took up playing again. I new it would help with my fitness, be good for my anxiety and also be a great way to meet new people in a new area.

I made the one big mistake though, I dived in head first without thinking how it was going to make me feel.

At the first training session I attended for my new team I wanted to impress and show I could still play. I’ve always been very competitive.

So I gave my all for the entire hour and was so consumed by playing well that I didn’t even think about my anxiety.

This was great while I was playing, but at the end when everyone started to leave it hit me. My heart was racing, I felt physically worn out and my legs started to wobble.

Suddenly it was just me, sat on my own in my car with the panic building and building. I had those terrible thoughts of doom that I had overdone it and a heart attack was only moments away.

Suffice to say the panic eventually subsided and I was fine as you always are after a panic attack.

However, it made me question if I really wanted to get back into exercise and fitness again if this was how it was going to make me feel each time.

Thankfully I didn’t just give up there and then, I realised I just needed to be smarter.

I knew I’d made a mistake going all out first time back and that what I needed to do was to ease myself gradually back into it again.

So I planned out an easy regime to start me off, with some light jogging and a little weight training, nothing too strenuous to begin with.

I also kept my sessions short and stopped for a breather once or twice each session to make sure I wasn’t over doing it.

It wasn’t long before I found I could do more and more without spiking my anxiety, in fact you’ll be surprised how quickly it changes.

Most importantly I explained to myself each time I started to exercise that this was going to make my heart beat faster, that it was perfectly normal and that it wasn’t a panic attack.

Once I did start to feel my heart racing in my chest I just smiled and told myself again, this is good, this is supposed to happen, there is nothing to fear here.

By doing this each time I quickly retrained my thoughts away from those of panic and now when I exercise it doesn’t even cross my mind.

Exercise for the anxious – the right way to do it

If it has been a while since you got some exercise then you must start off slowly and gradually ease your way back in.

I recommend you do not start in a competitive environment playing sport with other people. You may have been captain of the football team at school, but trying to rediscover that in your first session back is not the way to do it.

It is better to start on your own or with a friend who understands why you are doing it.

Plan out your workouts in advance and keep them fairly short and non strenuous.

Gradually build the amount of time and effort you put into them, but slowly enough so that it does not stress you body and mind too much.

Remember to tell yourself before and during your workouts that you are going to have a faster heart beat.

Tell yourself this is meant to happen, you need it to happen and it is nothing to do with panic. You need your heart beating to get your blood pumped round your body, it’s a good thing.

To help get you started you can read my articles on:

Both of these guides will help you with basic training, but don’t just go straight into the full workout, build it up slowly and aim to be able to do a full session within a month or so.

Once you feel that your fitness is at a good level and you no longer feel anxious during or after your session then joining a local sports team is a great way to make sure you keep the exercise going. 

Exercise is key

I can’t stress enough how key exercise is as a tool in your recovery process.

Not just doing some every now and then, but getting regular exercise, which means 3-5 times per week, even if it is only for 20-30 minutes each time.

As I talked about in my last article those who recover from anxiety do so because they keep doing the right things over and over again.

Just simple choices made everyday which combine and compound over time make the difference.

Doing exercise is exactly the same, it takes time to see the results, and it is as easy to do as it is not to do.

You will only feel that difference if you do it and keep doing it.

On the way home from gym I always feel great, not only am I feeling good from my workout but it drives me on to do more and to want more.

It is often during these drives home afterwards that I come up with ideas for new articles and other things I want to do or achieve.

When I get home I don’t just lie on the sofa and watch TV for the rest of the night. It makes me feel productive, it strengthens my self belief and I feel all the better for it.

It gives you that impetus to want more and to do more, to tell your anxiety to do its worst, because you don’t care, you still want to achieve what you know you can, with or without anxiety in your life.

You will also find it is exactly what you needed to get you started out on your path to recovery.


Hugo Rock


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