Is exercise the way forward for anxiety sufferers?

With anxiety on the rise, for many people, counselling and medication doesn’t always make a difference. Can exercise be a real cure for mental health problems? – Maisie Walker Investigates.

For years Amy never believed she could travel the world or go to university.

In fact, leaving the house, talking to people and even getting out of bed seemed impossible.

After entering her lowest point, things took a turn for the worst, she couldn’t see a life without anxiety and like many people, she suffered in silence. The only way she could find a small sense of relief was through self harming. Not only did she feel useless, the anxiety took its toll on her mental and physical well being.

It’s not surprising that people feel completely abnormal and isolated if they have tried every single coping method out there. There are medications available, counselling and hypnotherapy but for many anxiety sufferers, these things just aren’t enough.

What if I said that exercise has been tried and tested as an effective way to beat anxiety?

Amy was diagnosed with anxiety around five years ago, for the first three years, she tried every coping method that she could have possibly been given. It wasn’t until two years ago that she was introduced to exercise plans that she had ever felt so good.

Determined to get out of the constant loop of panic attacks and overthinking, Amy decided to give the exercise plans her full determination.

After sixth form Amy decided not to go to university, the thought of the workload and the interviews seemed much too daunting. Her mind constantly told her that she couldn’t complete tasks that she was more then capable of. That's when she was given the exercise plan. “I was advised by my psychologist about 2 years ago to start exercising to improve my mental health and take my anxiety out on something else, I didn’t believe that this would work at all”. How do you feel now? "After pushing myself to complete the plans, two years on I have finally managed to apply and get into university and travel round South East Asia and Australia. These are things I would have never dreamed of achieving, I'm so proud of who I have become"

Amy’s psychologist devised a strict workout plan which consisted of: boxing twice a week, circuit training once a week and swimming at least twice a week. “at first this seemed daunting to me, I had never stuck to such a strict routine, but once I had started, it became a second nature”

The exercise taught her to channel the anger and frustration in her head. Boxing especially. For an hour or so of exercise, she felt normal again, she didn’t feel like she was the only one on the planet –she finally felt as if she could fit into society. Do you feel as if exercise has cured your anxiety? “I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome it as I believe it is part of you as a person, but, it definitely improves it by at least 80%. I feel like if I don’t exercise for a couple of days I feel low and stressed”

Before speaking to Amy I was sceptical, I couldn’t see how exercise could make such a difference for anxiety sufferers and I also didn’t understand why it wasn’t used as standard anxiety coping mechanism. I decided to speak to anxiety counsellor David Smith in Canterbury to find out what techniques he recommends his patients to use.

Do you believe that exercise can cure or improve anxiety? “yeah absolutely. I wouldn’t say cure but we definitely found that for the patients I have helped, exercise has been a very useful thing for anxiety. There’s been lots of research to say that it works. I think just generally for myself, if I’m having a particularly anxious day then I know that if I’m keeping myself active I feel a lot better”

For many of the people I have spoken too, they have all said the same thing. Anxiety is a part of you as a person, you can improve the symptoms but it stays with you forever, you just need to find the best coping mechanisms for you as an individual as everyone is different.

"Depending on the person, something like exercise is a very important part of being able to deal with it as well but its not just about exercise, its about actually developing strength in the body and then finding a way to be able to release tension.”

—David Smith

through my research I found out that exercise not only makes you look better, it releases endorphins into your body (basically happy feelings). This occurs every single time you exercise. Through my own experience, the more effort I put into exercising, the better I feel. It is not only making you feel good, its giving you a sense of achievement.

Still not fully satisfied, I decided to speak to personal trainer Tom Lyon to get his views on the topic.

What are the best exercises to do to improve your mood? "I would say all exercise improves your mood, however, the best ones would be high intensity exercises that get your heart rate going" have you ever experienced people who have had anxiety before who have come to you for training? "yeah definitely, i couldn't suggest methods to cure anxiety, but i could give them a good workout routine which i know would get them motivated and enjoying themselves. Thats the most important thing I think"

After speaking to everyone, I noticed a clear pattern. Breathing and running. Going for a morning or evening run everyday gets the blood pumping and also gives a clear indication of accomplishment. In addition to this, setting clear, realistic goals each time is also an important way to stay motivated if you find it difficult.

Louis is also an anxiety sufferer who uses exercise as a coping mechanism. I wanted to find out another person’s view and see how regular exercise affected him. He struggles to leave the house and talk to people when his anxiety is at its worst. Sometimes it can be a vicious cycle as the worse the anxiety is, the harder it is to find the motivation to get out and do something.

What do you use to combat the feelings you encounter? “exercise is the only thing I have found that has helped me overcome my anxiety. Boxing helps with anger and frustration, yoga and meditation helps me clear my mind and focus on my breathing which helps the physical affects of the anxiety. Running helps me with both the physical and mental effects anxiety has on my body”

Louis has had anxiety for around four years however he never went to seek help as he didn’t want to label himself as someone who suffers with the mental illness. Similar to Amy, he had to work at a strict routine which he set himself after doing some research online. His dream has always been to travel around the world however he has never been able to push himself. “I’ve always struggled with the idea of going away on my own with anxiety but recently I’ve finally been able to go on short trips and meet new people. Its small steps but I genuinely believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel”

What I’ve loved most about speaking to anxiety sufferers is hearing about their recovery journeys. Despite not physically being able to see anxiety, it is there and it is affecting millions of people. I’m not confirming that exercise is a complete cure for anxiety as I have found out that anxiety is more like a human trait. However, I have realised how effective it can be if you stick to a simple exercise routine, even if it consists of a quick morning and evening run. It's all about your personal journey, no one else can tell you how your body and mind works, do what feels right for you. A healthy body equals a healthy mind.