Physical exercise & anxiety

Many people think that the mind and body are separate but evidence actually shows that there is a link between being physically active and enjoying positive mental wellbeing. Furthermore, evidence shows that being physically active can protect people against depression and anxiety as it causes chemical changes in the brain which can positively alter mood. It also brings about a sense of greater self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge.

The benefits of physical activity

In addition to greater physical fitness, some of the mental benefits of physical exercise include:

  • Less tension, stress and mental fatigue
  • A natural energy boost
  • Improved sleep
  • A sense of achievement
  • Focus in life and motivation
  • Less anger or frustration
  • A healthy appetite
  • A better social life
  • Having fun!

How much should I exercise?

It is recommended that adults do 150 minutes of moderate activity every week, an average of 30 minutes five times a week. For some, this might sound like a lot but even a 15 minute walk can help to clear your mind and relax. Any exercise is better than none.

Moderate exercise means being energetic enough so you:

  • Breathe a little heavier than normal, but aren’t out of breath
  • Feel warmer, but don’t end up hot and sweaty

And if the prospect of doing the recommended amount of exercise straight away is too daunting:

  • Build up slowly at a pace that suits you
  • You don’t have to do a solid half hour either. Find three 10 minute slots each day if that suits you – or two quarter hours.

Suggestions for being more physically active

Being active doesn’t mean going to the gym, taking up jogging or joining a sports team. There are lots of ways to be active – and they don’t need to cost much money. Adopting a more active lifestyle can be as simple as doing daily tasks more energetically, or making small changes to your routine.

Here are a few suggestions:

At home
  • Walk the children or grandchildren to school, then jog home.
  • Speed up the housework. Tidy up faster until you feel warm.
  • Put some music on for a 10 minute dance.
  • Apply more elbow grease when cleaning the car.
At work
  • Time your daily walks to and from the train station. Can you walk faster?
  • Use the stairs for journeys less than four floors.
  • Use your lunch hour. Take a brisk walk, do an exercise class or go for a swim.
  • Don’t pick up the phone; walk to see a colleague.
Out and about
  • Leave the car at home for short journeys.
  • Get off the bus a stop earlier, or get on a stop later.
  • Jog and walk the dog; jog ten paces, then walk ten.
  • Join an exercise class at your community centre – and meet your neighbours!

Click here for more advice from the NHS about getting fit for free.

Helpful resources

If you want to take up a sport, find out which one you are best suited to with a short psychological and aptitude test, developed with an expert team of sports psychologists at Loughborough University. Take the NHS’ sport aptitude test here.

If you’ve decided you want to get active, click here for advice from the NHS on getting started. The Mental Health Foundation also has great advice when becoming more physically active.

Download the free Mental Health Foundation guide for more information on how physical activity improves wellbeing and advice on where to start.

Credits

Many thanks to the Mental Health Foundation and NHS Choices for providing the information included on this page.

Personal experiences

Credit: Mike Powell / All Sport

I have always taken part in sport and exercise and I believe it has made me a better person. In addition to keeping me fit and healthy, regular physical exercise helps me to cope with the challenges of life. Initially, when I first stopped competing at a high level, the thought of ‘exercising for exercising sake’ was a foreign concept. But over time and with the demands of a busy life, I realised I did need to exercise, even if it was just for some ‘me’ time. I also like the social aspect of meeting a group like minded people and it helps keep my weight in check.

I have a demanding job and a family, so stress at differing levels is always nearby. I believe that because I have always had a positive outlet through exercise, I have been able to cope much better with what life throws at me.

Paula Dunn
1988 Olympic Athlete (100 & 200 metre running)

As a long-term sufferer of agoraphobia and panic disorder I, like many people, have tried many different therapies and treatments over the years in order to gain some relief from my symptoms and ultimately to overcome my anxiety. Whilst a course of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy were helpful in their own respective ways, it was physical exercise, specifically running, that proved to be the best therapy for me.

Having been someone who wasn’t traditionally the sporty type, I have to admit that initially the concept of running frightened the life out of me. But after gaining weight after the birth of my second child, continuing to experience anxiety and low self-esteem I thought, what have I to lose, give it a go.

Five years on, I am a size 8; I run on a regular basis and am a member of a local running club. I even started my own group to encourage people like myself to take up the sport. I cannot underestimate the impact that running has had on my life. It is a way of life for me and not only has it helped me to build my self-esteem, lose weight and get fit, but it has also opened up countless social opportunities. I have made so many friends with people I just would not have met otherwise.

My advice to anyone who is reading this who is thinking, “Well I don’t have the energy” or “Sport just isn’t for me,” is to think again. I started off by jogging (at a very slow pace) around the block. I used to do this when it was dark as at the time I had an issue with people seeing me running. Now, I run in the day time proudly sporting my Athletics Club gear and with a sense of pride that only those who run will relate to.

Nicky Lidbetter
Anxiety UK CEO

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