Chances are good that you, or someone you know, is dealing with anxiety. One in five Americans over 18, and one in three teenagers 13 to 18, reported having a chronic anxiety disorder during the past year. And when I talk to college students, they’re not at all surprised that a whopping 63% of students felt tremendous anxiety during their freshman year, according to a report by the National College Health Association.
The toll of anxiety can be high: it increases a person’s risk for other psychiatric disorders like depression, and can contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. One sobering study shows that people with anxiety tend to be more sedentary and do less intense forms of physical activity, if any. That’s ironic, because lacing up your sneakers and getting out and moving may be the single best nonmedical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety.
As a psychiatrist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain, I’ve not only seen the science, I’ve witnessed firsthand how physical activity affects my patients. Research shows aerobic exercise is especially helpful. A simple bike ride, dance class, or even a brisk walk can be a powerful tool for those suffering from chronic anxiety. Activities like these also help people who are feeling overly nervous and anxious about an upcoming test, a big presentation, or an important meeting.
How does exercise help ease anxiety?
- Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.
- Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.
- Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids.
- Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival.
- Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.
So exactly how much exercise does one need to protect against episodes of anxiety and anxiety disorders? While pinpointing this is not easy, a recent meta-analysis in the journal Anxiety-Depression found that people with anxiety disorders who reported high-level physical activity were better protected against developing anxiety symptoms than those who reported low physical activity. Bottom line: when it comes to treating anxiety, more exercise is better.
If you’re just starting out, don’t despair. Some research also shows that just a single bout of exercise can help ease anxiety when it strikes.
Which type of exercise you choose may not matter greatly. Studies point to the effectiveness of everything from tai chi to high-intensity interval training. People experienced improvement no matter which types of activity they tried. Even general physical activity is helpful. The important thing is to try activities and keep doing them.
To maximize the benefits:
- Choose something enjoyable so you will do it repeatedly, building resilience.
- Work toward getting your heart rate up.
- Work out with a friend or in a group to reap the added benefit of social support.
- If possible, exercise in nature or green space, which further lowers stress and anxiety.
While scientific studies are important, you don’t need to consult a chart, statistics, or an expert to know how good you feel after working up a sweat. Remember those feelings and use them as motivation to do something physical every day. Time to get up and get moving!
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
James 5:13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
John 15:9-11 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Isaiah 55:1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Joshua 1:5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Philippians 4:11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
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