In recent years, mental health has become a topic with more open discussion, and many these days are preaching about the importance of “opening up” as opposed to “hiding in the dark” about the mental health issues that many face. In Australia, anxiety is the most common mental health condition, affecting on average 1 in 4 people (1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men) (Beyond Blue). Although most may not perceive it as “normal” (which poses the question as to what normal actually is), the statistics clearly highlight that anxiety is a common occurrence. In addition to that, the next step after highlighting the statistics is to act and seek avenues that will not only minimise anxiety and its effects, but also enhance quality of life overall. It has become common knowledge that exercise has immensely positive affects on mental health, with this, it would be logical to commence structured training (if not already begun) to ideally attenuate anxiety and provide a rather organic avenue for positive change, both physically and mentally.
What have we learned?
It is easy to flippantly make the comment that exercise helps anxiety and will minimise symptoms of numerous mental health conditions, so lets back that statement up by looking in to the research on the positive link between exercise and anxiety. A review of 37 meta-analyses (aka combining the results of multiple scientific studies) highlighted an anxiolytic effect of exercise on anxiety (Wegner et al, 2014). What this means in simple terms is that exercise as an intervention provides an anxiety-relieving effect, positively influencing both body and mind. Furthermore, this research also noted a large positive effect of exercise on depression.
Moving more specifically to middle-aged and elderly women, a population most heavily affected by this, a very recent meta-analysis assessed ten publications (equating to a total of 1463 women!) which measured the effects of programmed exercise on anxiety symptoms. The analysis highlighted that even just low-moderate intensity exercise does seem to improve anxiety (Martinez-Dominguez, 2018). There really is no excuse not to perform some form of exercise!
Exercise, opioids, mood:
A paper by Anderson and Shivakumar (2013) succinctly explains the link between the endogenous opioid system and exercise, and how this can play a key role in positive mood and emotional responses.
It is hypothesised that positive increases in mood and a reduction in anxiety following an acute bout of exercise is a result of the release, and binding of, beta-endorphins to their receptor sites in the brain. As the above mentioned paper discusses, it has been demonstrated that exercise increases activity of endogenous opioids in the central and peripheral nervous system, which may often be the cause for the elation experienced as a result of exercise. Although this increase in endorphin activity may not be the sole cause for the mental health benefits shown in this study, anecdotally and pragmatically speaking, regular exercise can play a significant role in both mood state and mindset; the knock-on effects of which can provide even greater benefits.
Additional benefits of exercise:
In addition to the previously mentions positive mental benefits of exercise, it is widely researched and commonly known of the host of physical benefits which regular exercise has to offer. Cardiovascular benefits associated with exercise may also assist in shifting the trend in breathing patterns during moments of significant anxiety. We must not forget that the heart is a muscle which should also be trained, and regular exercise where volume and intensity are progressively developed will allow for positive effects of cardiovascular training. Furthermore, training will develop the ability to breathe wholly; that is, exploring the ranges to which the cardiorespiratory system functions during both inhalation and exhalation. Where am I going with this? Well, research highlights that the way of breathing decisively influences autonomic and pain processing, and further underpins deep and slow breathing (in conjunction with relaxation) as the essential feature in the modulation of sympathetic arousal and pain perception (Busch et al, 2012). In a nut shell, we know that exercise influences positive mood which can play a key role in relaxation, stress management and anxiety. Furthermore, with regular exercise, we can train and enhance both cardiovascular and respiratory function and allow for better breathing ability – a tool which we can use to minimise the effects of anxiety. Lastly, the effects of resistance training as a form of exercise are very clear: with regular resistance exercise we can develop strength and increase metabolic function, not to mention the positive mind-state associated!
Written by Performance Coach Jonathan Stahl
- Anderson, E. & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Front Psychiatry, 4(27). doi: 3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
- Wegner, M., Helmich, I., Machado, S., Nardi, A.E., Arias-Carrion, O. & Budde, H. (2014). Effects of exercise on anxiety and depression disorders: review of meta-analyses and neurobiological mechanisms. CNS & neurological disorders drug targets, 13(6), 1002- doi: 10.2174/1871527313666140612102841
- Martinez-Dominguez, S.J., Lajusticia, H., Chedraui, P. & Perez-Lopez, F.R. (2018). The effect of programmed exercise over anxiety symptoms in midlife and older women: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Climacteric: the journal of the International Menopause Society, 114, 1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2018.05.004
- Busch, V., Magerl, W., Kern., U. & Eichhammer, P. (2012). The Effect of Deep and Slow Breathing on Pain Perception, Autonomic Activity, and Mood Processing – An Experimental Study. Pain Medicine, 13(2), 215-228. doi: 10.1111/j.1526- 2011.01243.x
- Beyond Blue. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the- facts/anxiety