HomeMindMental Health5 Scientific Reasons Exercise is the Antidote for Anxiety

5 Scientific Reasons Exercise is the Antidote for Anxiety

Exercise targets both the body and the brain.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder first appeared as a diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 and since then, it seems like the entire planet has caught the disease. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 275 million people suffer from anxiety disorders worldwide. That means 1 out of every 13 people suffer.

In the United States alone, anxiety affects more than 40 million adults, making it the most common mental illness in America.

Individuals with an anxiety disorder are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders. The ADAA (Anxiety & Depression Association of America) also claims that while anxiety disorders are “highly treatable,” only 36.9% receive treatment.

There’s an obvious correlation between advancements in technology, specifically the chronic effects social media addiction has on self-image, and this measurable rise in anxiety. Nearly half of the population diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (AADA)

And while anti-anxiety prescription providers are making out like bandits, the number of overdoses from these drugs is both unwarranted and appalling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose is now the №1 cause of unintentional death in the United States, and 70% of those deaths involve opioids which include prescription pain relievers, such as Valium and OxyContin.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

So what’s the alternative to prescribing someone, riddled with anxiety or depression, a bottle of pills without addressing the real root of their mental state? While there’s a slew of natural remedies tested and vouched by real patients, the age-old practice of exercise ranks top of the chart. Here’s why…

1. “Feel-good” chemicals are released in our brains, making us more apt to express ourselves.

Endorphins are hormones in our central nervous systems that work naturally to relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure. With the help of science, we’ve learned that physical activity amplifies the release of these endorphins.

Also critical to our mental health is something called the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory, emotion regulation, and learning. Exercise creates new hippocampal neurons, and exercise can essentially help prevent and cure depression.

It’s no wonder why we feel more talkative after a hard gym session, and more upbeat in our delivery.

Personal trainer and life coach, AJ Johnson uses this knowledge in her practice by asking deep, personal questions to clients while they work out. In an episode of Jada Smith’s Red Table Talk, actress Gabrielle Union describes the experience she had with AJ during one of their boxing sessions.

“[AJ] said, ‘tell me ten things that make you happy!’” Gabrielle recalls. “And I’m punching but I can’t think of anything that makes me happy, not one thing that makes me happy. And she’s like, ‘Gimme something, anything!’ And I’m like, ‘OK, um, butter, um, imitation crab, and Crown beef…”

AJ pulled Gabrielle away from the punching bag and replied, “Of course your marriage failed. You don’t know what makes you happy, why would you think someone else knows how to make you happy?”

With endorphins coursing through our brains, we’re more open and willing to reveal our vulnerability and speak our truth.

I’ve incorporated this technique into my own workout routine. Immediately after a yoga class or cardio session, I open up my journal. While Julia Cameron believes the Morning Pages — three mandatory, daily pages of hand-written stream of consciousness — are most effective in the morning, I’ve found that the product of my writing is most powerful and revelatory after my muscles are loose and my mind is open.

2. The harder we work, the deeper we sleep. The deeper we sleep, the clearer we feel.

We all know how important sleep is to our well-being and how anxiety often causes insomnia. Interestingly enough, new research also suggests that sleep deprivation can cause anxiety.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 40 million Americans experience anxiety, which is the same number of Americans who suffer from chronic sleep disorders. Coincidence? Don’t think so. And if that’s not bad enough, the American Sleep Apnea Association claims that an additional 20 million admit to “occasional trouble sleeping.”

According to the Sleep Foundation, “regular exercise, particularly in the morning or afternoon, can impact your sleep quality by raising your body temperature a few degrees. Later in the day, when your internal thermostat drops back to its normal range, this can trigger feelings of drowsiness and help you drop off to sleep.”

Plus a consistent workout regimen not only allows us to fall asleep more easily, it sends us into deeper REM sleep once we do.

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

3. Exercising presents the rare opportunity to go screen-free.

And for those of us with office jobs, or the chronic yet common Instagram addiction, our gym visits, and morning runs might be the only time we get away from the blue light.

This technological world of instant gratification might make our lives easier — as we no longer need to memorize phone numbers, or how many cups are in a gallon, or directions to our favorite café in the city — but what have we given up with the whole world at our fingertips? Social skills, self-esteem, individuality, and the ability to spell are just a few things we forfeit to our screens.

Social Media Anxiety is a real disorder, and almost 20% of people cannot go more than three hours without checking their accounts. When we work out, we’re not only exercising physical body parts that suffer (like our neck, hands, eyes, and lower back), we’re stimulating the growth of new brain cells.

4. Setting attainable goals establishes our purpose.

Less anxious people tend to be those who look into the future with optimism and excitement. When you set a goal and identify exactly what you want to achieve, your brain visualizes it, as if it’s already been accomplished. Dopamine (another happy-hormone) is then released into the bloodstream.

Anxious people tend to put too much on their plates. Their minds dwell on the mistakes of the past, which manifests as depression, and fears of the future, which leads to anxiety.

When you set realistic physical goals for yourself, you give yourself purpose by introducing motivational momentum into your everyday routine. Think of vision boards without the waste of paper.

Photo by Logan Weave on Unsplash

5. Routines motivate us to smash our goals.

Imagine stepping on a scale and realizing you’ve finally achieved your goal weight. People who are tormented by anxiety have a foggy image of success and often neglect the moments in life that are worth celebrating. Athletes live for these moments and use them as motivation to keep pushing.

According to the results of a study recorded in BioMed Central, “Having a goal and writing it down are two important tasks anyone can do to improve the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome. Goal setting is regularly used by mental health and rehabilitation professionals to focus service provision on functional outcomes that are meaningful to the consumer.”

Just remember that it’s OK to start small. Psychologists at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America who study how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. So, just get out there and do it.

You’ll be happy that you did.

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