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One of the quickest ways to relieve anxiety is to exercise. There is scientific evidence to support this, but I'm also speaking from my own experience.
Exercise has helped me enormously with my chronic anxiety and I can’t recommend it enough as one of your core anxiety coping strategies.
But while all exercise is beneficial, I've found that the best exercises for anxiety are walking, yoga, and hiking.
People struggling with anxiety disorders often have issues with low energy, fatigue, sleep problems, weakness, muscle tension, low confidence, social anxiety, irritability or nervousness, and it's important to take this into consideration when recommending the best exercises for anxiety relief.
So, if you’re struggling to get motivated, I understand you completely. I was there too.
At the peak of my anxiety, I was a couch potato, who never exercised, lived a sedentary lifestyle, struggled with all of the above and had zero motivation.
But one day something changed and I started to slowly introduce daily exercise. Within only a few months, I became physically active and after a while I also started to enjoy it.
It wasn’t easy at first, but I’m so glad I kept going!
If I could do it, you can too!
My goal for this article is to inspire you to choose exercise as one of your core anxiety relief techniques, by explaining how I got there and why I believe the following are the best exercises for anxiety.
So please keep on reading.
From a Couch Potato to Being Physically Active
As a young girl I was very active and played outside a lot. I loved riding my bicycle, going roller-skating, and running around with my friends.
But that all changed at the age of nine when I experienced war trauma. During the war I had to stay mostly in my apartment or in shelter, and as this was for a period of 24 months I got used to sitting down a lot.
I started suffering from chronic anxiety during the war, and this felt normal given the circumstances, but my symptoms continued even when we escaped to Britain.
While living in England my anxiety got worse over the years, but I also continued to sit down a lot.
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Why Did I Continue to live a Sedentary Lifestyle?
When we moved to the UK, I was only 11 years old, but the last thing on my mind was to take part in any sport.
I had too many other things to deal with – learning English, adapting to my new school, and keeping up academically with my peers. I found this extremely challenging because I didn’t speak any English.
To progress faster I started doing lots of extra studying. Straight after school I would go home and spend the entire evening sitting down and learning, and at weekends I would do exactly the same.
Unfortunately this became my lifestyle, and by the time I made it to university, I was a pro at obsessing with grades, and sitting down a lot!
After University I moved to London and began my career in investment banking, where I cemented my sedentary lifestyle with long hours in the office! Around this time I also adopted unhealthy eating habits, consuming a lot of refined carbs, sugary foods, and processed foods in general. Also I ate when I could and the first thing I could grab.
What Was My Anxiety Like?
By the time I reached my early 20s my anxiety became unbearable.
I was anxious constantly, even in situations where I should have been calm. For example I'd feel my anxiety rising when while eating, lying in bed, watching the television, laughing with a friend, or listening to music. It felt as though my anxiety was me every second of my life which was ‘suffocating’.
What was even more challenging was that I also started suffering from other mental and physical health issues including depression, chronic stress, low energy, fatigue, sleep problems, frequently occurring cold and flu symptoms, canker sores, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and more. I was in a very bad state and I often thought about taking my own life.
Eventually I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), which came as no surprise.
Initially, I had therapy for my anxiety and I saw various medical consultants for my physical issues. But while therapy helped me to come to terms with my childhood trauma, and reduce suicidal thoughts, I still had more work to do and so I decided to look into alternative healing.
How Exercise Became Part of My Life?
My research about alternative medicine led me to an amazing phytotherapist (alternative healer) who told me that to manage my anxiety and improve my overall health I had to adopt a healthy lifestyle including clean eating, exercise and relaxation techniques. She explained that I didn't have time to waste or for more excuses.
I remember sitting there in front of her and thinking this is not what I expected. I was looking for a miracle pill so that I can continue business as usual.
I was anxious, unmotivated, unfit, and depressed, but I was also desperate to feel better.
So, at 28 years of age, and nearly 20 years of anxiety struggle, I realized I had to change my life.
The next day I began to take baby steps – I looked up healthy meal recipes, went food shopping, and began with short walks.
It was tough to start with and I’d get out of breath easily. But I kept repeating in my mind “healthy food + exercise = healthy body and mind”, and this helped me to keep going.
I also gave myself realistic daily goals that I knew I could achieve.
My first daily goal was to "eat at least one healthy meal and walk a minimum of 15 minutes". Anything that I did in addition to that was a bonus.
As time went on my goals got tougher. For example, "eat at least two healthy meals a day and do 30 minutes of exercise".
The more I walked, the longer I was able to walk, and the more I enjoyed walking.
What was the Outcome of My Exercise?
After only a few months of eating healthily and walking, I felt fitter and stronger. But more importantly, I started noticing positive improvements in my anxiety, mood, energy levels, and overall health.
This was very inspiring and I kept thinking,
Why didn’t I do this a lot sooner because I could have saved myself from so much pain?
I was fascinated with the whole healthy lifestyle concept and I began researching and reading about nutrition, exercise, yoga, meditation, fasting, colon cleansing, and etc.
As I learned about new healthy habits and anxiety coping strategies I added them to my lifestyle.
Eventually, I overcame my chronic anxiety, and while it wasn’t down to exercise and healthy eating alone, my anti-anxiety diet and regular physical activity helped me to reduce and manage my anxiety.
So as you can see it was a long journey to exercise but I made it and you can too. It is going to be difficult in the beginning, but just take tiny and consistent steps and you will become stronger, fitter and less anxious.
The power is within you always.
The 3 Best Exercises for Anxiety
I started with walking in an effort to reduce my anxiety but later I also tried many other sports including running, swimming, dancing, rollerblading, circuit training, Zumba, aerobics, cycling, hiking, Pilates, and yoga.
While all these sports are incredible and beneficial for health, I found that walking, hiking, and yoga are the best exercises for chronic anxiety.
Each time I took a long walk, hiked in the woods, or practiced yoga, I significantly reduced my anxiety symptoms, more so than I was able to achieve with any other form of exercise.
Also, I found these exercises easier to commit to than all the rest because they are gentler, more enjoyable, and possible to do even when my anxiety was very problematic.
After only a few weeks of taking daily walks I realized how powerful walking is as an anxiety management technique. Each walk helped me to feel less anxious, sleep better and not have suicidal thoughts, which was altogether amazing.
Also, the more I walked the less anxious I felt overall.
On top of that my energy went up, I felt stronger and I was less tired.
Over time I got fitter and started to significantly reduce and manage my anxiety.
I believe walking is the ‘king of exercise’ and the best of the ‘best exercises for anxiety’ and here are some of the reasons why:
How to Develop Your Walking Stamina and Reduce Anxiety?
Start slowly and extend your walks gradually. Also, try to incorporate walking as part of your daily routine. These are the steps that I took:
Step 1 - Walk Around the Block
Start taking short walks daily around your block, street, or neighborhood so that you stop and rest whenever you need to.
Step 2 - Walk Part of the Way To Work
When you are ready also introduce shorter walks as part of your journey to work such as walk to the next station, take the stairs, get off a stop earlier, walk the longer route to the office, or similar.
Step 3 - Add More Walking Trips Throughout the Day
After that add more walking while at work. Take the longer route to the bathroom, going for a short walk at lunchtime, and take the stairs when going to meetings.
Step 4 - Make the Walks Longer
Start introducing more walks, perhaps 30 minutes walking to work and 30 minutes walking from work, while the rest in your usual way.
Step 5 - Aim for 10,000 Steps Daily
Get a tracker and aim for 10,000 steps a day in total.
Step 7 - Visit Parks at Weekends
Start visiting parks at weekends. Walk to the park and walk around the park. Get tired with walking and then go home and have a shower and relax. Walking in the park is better for relieving anxiety than visiting shopping centers. Though walking around a shopping center is still better than sitting at home. Aim for 20,000 steps on Saturday or Sunday, or both if you can.
2. Hiking in the Woods
Words cannot define how beneficial hiking in the woods is for relieving anxiety. When you are in nature and surrounded by trees, the fresh air and the beauty of the woods naturally puts you in the present moment, and away from your anxious worries.
The first time I went hiking, I couldn’t believe the positive effect on my anxiety! It was just WOW!
All I kept thinking,
Why didn’t anyone tell me that hiking in the woods relieves anxiety almost instantly?
Anxiety sufferers tend to be anywhere else other than the present, and nature has a beautiful way of bringing us back to the moment.
I appreciate that hiking is not something you can do every day, but whenever you have the opportunity make sure you go. It is incredible at relieving anxiety.
Try to arrange it at least once a month.
Then when you are there, take everything in – the fresh air, the trees, the plants, the flowers, and the leaves. Nature will help to absorb a lot of your anxiousness and it will also balance you.
Practicing yoga is a highly effective technique for relieving anxiety and creating a sense of calm. It also helps to relieve tension, improve flexibility, strength, and breathing, all of which are affected by anxiety.I’ve always loved the idea of yoga and when I went to my first yoga class (Vinyasa) I was hooked. Before the class started I was nervous and irritable, yet afterwards I was exceptionally calm for a chronically anxious person! Plus, I felt more energized, happier, and as though I’d finally given my muscles and tendons a much-needed stretch.
Is Yoga Suitable for Everyone?
The beauty of yoga is that you can adapt your practice to your needs and abilities.
Your yoga routine can be very simple with as little as 6 yoga poses, or it can be more complex.
If you are practicing yoga in a class, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. Yoga is a personal practice and the only thing you need to concentrate on is your connection with your body and breath.
You should not feel any pain while in a yoga pose, but to progress try to go as deep as YOU can in each position.
Although I have attended yoga classes over the last few years, I prefer to practice yoga at home. Usually, I do a 20-minute yoga routine as soon as I wake up and I’ve found this to be incredibly effective at helping me to center for the day ahead.
Exercise is essential for reducing and managing anxiety, and in my experience walking, hiking, and yoga are the best exercises for anxiety relief.
But while exercise is important, we can’t forget about healthy eating, both are essential for better anxiety management and overall physical and mental health.
Combine your exercise with an anti-anxiety diet for optimum results!
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About the Author
Sandra is an anxiety expert and founder of Super Sensitive Sandi. Her anxiety advice has been featured in Best Life, Human Window, Life Hacker Guy, Morning Lazziness, and Blunt Therapy. Read more