A new year offers the potential for new opportunities and experiences. For those who struggle with general and consistent anxiety, however, the prospect of the new year and the expectations that come with it can be tricky to maneuver.
It’s with this in mind that Palmer physical therapist Anne Thomas reminds us that one of the most natural and effective ways to ease anxiety symptoms any time of year is through regular exercise.
“Going for a walk, taking a bike ride, hitting the gym or signing up for an exercise class … they all can be powerfully effective tools for easing anxiety and its effects on your life and health,” said Thomas, owner of Body In Balance Physical Therapy in Palmer.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), an estimated one in five adults and one in three teens experience chronic anxiety disorder each year. This disorder is defined as anxiety that’s persistent, excessive and routinely triggered by situations that aren’t actually threats.
Though it’s a psychological condition, Thomas says anxiety can take a toll on one’s physical health.
“High stress and anxiety have been linked to higher blood pressure and a greater risk of heart disease and stroke,” said Thomas. “Also, those who have high levels of anxiety tend to be more sedentary and avoid challenging situations, which can also have long-term health consequences.”
So, how does exercise help ease anxiety? Thomas points out four ways this happens:
Your brain chemistry changes. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals, like dopamine and endorphins in the brain, which contribute toward making you feel calmer and happier.
General tension diminishes. Whether working out, competing, playing or dancing, moving your body reduces general muscle tension in the body, decreasing your general feeling of anxiety.
You get distracted. Exercising can have a distracting effect, diverting your mind from the things about which you are or have been anxious. It’s also been shown that exercising outdoors, in nature, can calm your mind.
You give your brain a boost. Several studies have shown that regular exercise can maintain, and even improve, cognitive function in the brain. That means exercise can actually help you strengthen your ability to weather high-stress situations.
“On its own, exercise may not completely solve your anxiety issues,” Thomas said, pointing out that those suffering from chronic anxiety should discuss options with their personal physician. “When possible, though, studies show that regular exercise should be part of any natural, long-term treatment for anxiety.”
And, if you struggle to stick with a consistent exercise regimen, Thomas offers a few tips.
“Don’t just join a gym. Find an activity or activities you enjoy,” LAST said. “Recruit a friend or friends for some social support, and set a SMART goal. This acronym describes a goal that’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.”
Also, visit a physical therapist if pain, discomfort, weaknesses or chronic conditions are keeping you from exercising safely and consistently. Following an initial assessment, a PT can develop a personalized exercise program that best aligns with your individual circumstances and goals.