Frizzy hair, blotchy skin, body odor and sweaty clothes. How could looking so bad make you feel so good?

Researchers are unsure of all the mechanisms involved, but they are certain of one thing: exercise alleviates anxiety. Over the past decade, countless studies and clinical trials have demonstrated a strong correlation between exercise and a significant reduction in stress, panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms.

According to a recent study at the Medical University of South Carolina, “Habitual exercise correlates to a heightened level of mental health and well-being and reduced feelings of anxiety regardless of the gender of the individual."

What Kind of Exercise is Best?

Options are great and varied. Choosing enjoyable activities, whether outdoors or indoors, alone or in groups, is key to maintaining interest and motivation.

An activity as simple as walking three times a week can do wonders for tension and mood. Biking, jogging, or hiking also provide relief. Yoga and Pilates have calming effects on both mind and body. Yoga is particularly helpful in teaching breathing techniques and meditation.

Cardio-aerobic exercises boost heart-rate and increase body temperature--natural brain responses that soothe anxiety symptoms. Games such as tennis, volleyball or softball are also recommended.

Starting slowly, with realistic expectations can lead to remarkable outcomes. Only positive physical and emotional side effects exist to exercise, so long as the activity chosen is fun, engaging and practiced safely.

Why Exercise Helps

We've all heard of a runner's high, a feeling of euphoria athletes claim after exerting great physical energy. That high is not only very real, but also very attainable by ordinary people.

The brain's response to physical stimulation from exercise eases anxiety. Endorphins and adrenaline, hormones released during exertion, trigger positive mood changes in the brain. Several studies also suggest that serotonin, mood-regulating chemicals in the body, are increased during activity. Higher levels of serotonin alleviate depression. Happy moods lead to calm feelings.

Exercise requires concentration. Pitching a ball, pedaling a bike along a tight trail, or following an aerobics routine all take great focus. Concentrating on completing a specific task leaves less time for negative thinking. Engaging in a physical activity for a structured period of time refocuses attention to positive thoughts and actions.

Feelings of satisfaction in breaking a sweat and sticking through with a goal are also valuable. A 15-minute jog that initially felt brutal but now barely causes a sweat boosts confidence. Such lessons can be transferred to other life challenges that previously felt scary. And the interaction with others engaged in the same activity alleviates nervous and negative emotions associated with loneliness and isolation.

Where to Begin

Assessing one's age, fitness level, and interests are important. Talking with a doctor before embarking on a major exercise regimen is advisable. An activity that is simple and not overwhelming is also preferable. Setting a small goal is ideal. Committing to a long-term exercise program or paying costly gym memberships may only contribute to stress. The opportunities are endless, and the benefits will be felt, even after the first small steps.

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Iris Bräuninger, Ph.D.
Catherine Sabiston, Ph.D., M.H.K
Catherine Sabiston, Ph.D., M.H.K


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