Mind Your Mind: Physical exercise to reduce anxiety

When I was younger, I took horseback-riding, swimming and dance lessons. I played soccer during the summer and ran on my school’s cross-country team in the spring. Growing up, my parents insisted I remain active, and as a result, I was enrolled in multiple after-school activities.

After my first mood episode, though, everything changed. I quit all my extracurricular activities and spent my time in bed instead. For the next six years, I did not exercise on a regular basis. It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve started engaging in physical activity again, and I have to admit exercise has been beneficial to my mental health.

I don’t need to tell you all about the benefits of exercise. We all know that being active stimulates the production of these neat feeling chemicals called endorphins, and that exercise helps to regulate our blood sugar, increase our level of concentration and is the perfect outlet for built-up frustration.

Research shows that physical activity is considered a powerful, effective method to reduce anxiety. When you engage in regular exercise, you are biologically less prone to panic attacks and the hormones in your body are naturally regulated.

Although popular activities include running, swimming, indoor cycling, yoga, aerobics, working out at the gym and walking, I find that choosing an exercise program needs to be tailored to each individual depending on their needs and circumstances.

Therefore, instead of outlining the different types of activities available, I want to address what gets in the way of maintaining a regular exercise routine.

It’s hard to motivate myself. Exercise is so boring.”

“I don’t have time. I have other things to do. I’m too busy.”

“Having to exercise regularly is too inconvenient, expensive, and hard.”

Does that sound familiar? If you’re like me, you’ve already brainstormed a dozen reasons why exercising won’t work for you. Since I’ve been there many times, let’s troubleshoot and figure out ways to overcome these obstacles.

Pros and cons list

Making a pros and cons list seems easy to do in theory. However, I have found that when I sit down and write out the pros and cons of exercising versus not exercising, I end up being able to look at the full picture. This gives me the chance to not only reflect, but also examine the possible consequences, both positive and negative, of my future actions.

It’s also helpful to keep your list of pros and cons somewhere accessible, so you can remind yourself on a daily basis of the benefits of exercise. After achieving results, you’ll most likely start to believe in the power of exercise and won’t need to convince your brain every single time.

Commitment and rewards

When you make a commitment to yourself and carry it through, you are boosting your confidence, but also improving your self-respect. Making a commitment is an empowering form of self-care and implies responsibility as well as holding yourself accountable. On the flip-side, rewarding yourself for achieving your goals gives you the opportunity to treat yourself, which will then increase your motivation.

Low expectations and gradual progress

Setting unrealistic goals will only lead to potential failures, so it’s better to start with a small goal and increase expectations as you see fit. Not everyone can commit to working out at the gym five times a week, and that’s okay. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that sometimes, exercise can make you feel worse at first. If you haven’t been active in a while, initially you might feel pain in your body.

Last tips

If you don’t know where to begin, I’d suggest exploring your options and picking an activity you might find enjoyable. Community centres offer affordable classes, and they are usually equipped with skating rinks and badminton courts. Yoga studios and fitness centres also offer a variety of exercise classes. As UBC students, we also benefit from student rates at the BirdCoop gym and recreation programs. For cheap alternatives, I suggest planning outings with friends, like hikes in Pacific Spirit Park, bicycle rides along the Sea Wall or joining a recreational sports league. Incorporating exercise in your daily life can be as simple as biking to work, or going on a stroll with your best friend late at night.

Oh, and by the way: I attended my first spin class more than a year ago, but I am still only going once a week. My own personal fitness program is probably not considered rigorous enough, but it gives me a standard I can maintain. It’s a slow process, and still a work in progress. Like my friend said, “Once a week is better than nothing at all.”