Exercise and anxiety have a bit in common. They both cause increased heart rate and breathing. They both make you sweaty. And you can’t seem to think of much else at the time!
A little on anxiety…
Anxiety is something we all feel, at some point, in some way or another. It may look and feel slightly different for everyone! It’s a natural reaction to a ‘threat’ that happens at a certain point in our bodies stress response. When the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis shift into high gear (you may remember I touched on this in my last blog!).
When you’re preparing for a speech, this is great – because it sharpens your attention so you can rise to the challenge. Completely normal. But if you worry when there’s no real threat, to the point where you can’t function normally, that’s an anxiety disorder.
18% of the population suffers from a clinical anxiety disorder.
A study done in 2004 looked at 54 sedentary college students with generalized anxiety disorder. Split into two groups, one group ran on treadmills at 60-90% of their maximum heart rate. The second group walked. Whilst both groups showed reduced anxiety levels, the rigorous exercise worked more quickly and effectively. Furthermore, students in this group reported less fear of the physical symptoms of anxiety.
So here’s the theory:
When we raise our heart rate and our breathing in the context of exercise, we learn that these physical signs don’t necessarily lead to an anxiety attack. We become more comfortable with our body being aroused, and we don’t automatically assume that the arousal is noxious.
We use exercise to combat the symptoms of anxiety, and thus treat the state. While your level of fitness improves, you chip away at the anxiety trait. Over time, you teach the brain that the symptoms don’t always spell doom and that you can survive. You’re reprogramming the cognitive misinterpretation.
A match made in physiological heaven
How does exercise do this?
As we start using our muscles, the body breaks down fat molecules in the blood stream to fuel them. These free fatty acids compete with tryptophan to catch a ride on our transport proteins, elevating its concentration in the blood stream.
To equalize its levels, tryptophan pushes through the blood brain barrier, and is used as a building block for our old friend serotonin (feel good hormone).
BDNF, which is also released with exercise, also increases levels of serotonin, which enhances our sense of safety.
Moving the body also triggers the release of GABA, which is the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter (and the primary target for most anti-anxiety medications), which interrupts the obsessive feedback loop within the brain.
When our heart starts beating hard, its muscle cells produce a molecule called atrial natriuretic peptide. That puts the brakes on our hyper-aroused state.
Clearly there is a connection between how much you exercise, and how anxious you feel.
Scientists have shown that exercise helps the average person reduce normal feelings of anxiousness – next time you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, try squeezing in 15-20 minutes of huff and puff exercise and see how you feel after. You be the judge!
Broman-Fulks, Berman & Webster (2004), ‘Effects of aerobic exercise of anxiety sensitivity‘, Journal or Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 125-136
Ratey, John J.,Hagerman, Eric. (2008) Spark :the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain New York : Little, Brown,
About the Author
On the back of recent iNform blogs about the positive effects of spending time in the outdoors amongst our blue and green spaces, I thought it would be great to pass on some of my favourites so that you can explore Adelaide’s trails and beaches:
Green Places (Adelaide’s trails):
You’ll find the start of the boardwalk in Hallett Cove (or you can start at the other end in Seacliff), a 35 minute drive from Adelaide. The walk itself is a 10.2km return walk rated as a moderate hike. If you aren’t up to 10.2km, it’s very easy to walk as far as you wish and turn around.
It’s a scenic walk along the cliff-tops of Marino and has numerous valleys and resultant stairs to climb. There are also several little paths in the valleys that you can explore to take you to the rugged beaches. You can find plenty of birdlife and if you’re lucky and have a good eye, some ocean life may show itself also. At the Hallett Cove end there is also a great café for lunch and or a coffee after your walk.
A little further from Adelaide at a 75 minute drive, this little gem of a trail is one of the most scenic around. The rugged cliffs and coastline of Newland Head Conservation Park provides some amazing views. The trail itself is rated moderate and is 11.5km one way. Keep this in mind as you may need someone at the other end to pick you up if you choose to do the whole one way walk. Alternatively, you can walk just a part of it and turn around.
Just a whisper away from the CBD at a 15 minute drive, Chambers Gully is Waterfall Gully’s little brother. The trail to Mt Lofty is a 15km circuit, rated hard hike with steep sections so make sure you are prepared if you are doing the full loop. If you want more of a casual walk, the first few kilometres of Chambers Gully are less strenuous and very scenic. There’s lots of wildlife to be seen if you keep your eyes open.
Blue Places (Adelaide’s beaches):
I may be a bit biased about Port Noarlunga given I spent many days there growing up. But I’ll stand by my claims that it’s a top spot. It’s a 40 minute drive from Adelaide and has numerous activities available. You can hire snorkels and fins from Elite Dive Academy and go snorkeling out at the reef. There is a jetty that will lead you out to the reef which you can also walk on and explore at low tide. If you take a short walk over to the river you can hire kayaks from Easy Kayak Rentals and have a cruisy paddle down the river. For those wanting to hit the waves, South Port Beach sits at the south end of Port Noarlunga and can often have a nice wave rolling in. Need a board? Preece’s Surf shop can help you out.
A quaint little town on the coast about a 90 minute drive from Adelaide. Great spot on a nice day for some fishing, kayaking or just a swim. Don’t miss the walk around the bottom of the cliffs to explore a little more. There are some great other little beaches and places to explore if you are willing to have a look around.
Port Willunga is a quiet little town about a 50 minute drive from Adelaide. The beach itself sits in a bay and is a little protected from the elements. There is a lot of beach to spread out on and the cliffs that overlook the beach can be quite scenic. The Star Of Greece café sits at the top of the hill, named after an iron cargo ship that wrecked here in 1888. The wreck provides a great diving spot for keen divers. Snorkeling off the beach is also very accessible.
Bonus locations for the travelers out there:
If you like to travel, Innes National park is a wonderful place to visit. There is lots of historical walks, shipwrecks, surf breaks and protected bays to explore. You could easily spend a week there doing walks every day and not get bored.
This is literally a hidden beach. When driving into Stokes Bay you are greeted with a rocky bay and a boat ramp. If you care to find a park and do a little searching, there is a narrow path/cave that makes its way through and under rocks, opening up to a pristine white sand beach. There is a protected wading/swimming area for the little ones and if the conditions are right there can be a fantastic little left hand beach break for the keen surfer.
These really are just a handful of quality outdoor environments the Adelaide region has to offer. When it comes down to it, if you are outdoors and moving and enjoying it, then you are in a great place. If you want to find more great trails WalkingSA has a great database of trails throughout the state.
If you want to explore Adelaide’s trails and beaches more but feel you can’t due to injury or fitness levels. Come in and see us. We can get you on track (or in the water) in no time.
About the Author
Everybody feels stressed at some point. But how do we deal with it? 75% of Australians admit that stress adversely effects their physical health and 64% report an impact on their mental health (APA, 2014). For 86% of us, watching TV or movies is our chosen coping strategy for stress and only 55% of us are getting an adequate amount of physical activity (Australian Health Survey 2011-12). So exercise, mood and stress; what’s the link? Here’s the science to support why exercise should be our go-to for those stressful situations.
You know those days where you wake up in the morning, a bunch of crazy happens and then you go to sleep (way too late)… Maybe some of this feels familiar; you’re up to your eye balls in reports at work. The kids have basketball training tonight. You forgot to get dinner out. It’s your mum’s birthday next week. You said you would help the school with their fundraiser this Friday. You promised your friend you would catch up for lunch on the weekend. You still haven’t found time to exercise, like you planned. Feeling stressed? How’s your mood?
A Brief Bio About Stress
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes, acute and chronic; social stress, physical stress, metabolic stress… just to name a few.
There is a psychological state of stress, and a physiological response to stress – it’s important to distinguish these. One is the external stressors of life, such as a looming deadline at work. The other is our internal state of stress, like when we feel we are stressed out of our minds and cannot think straight!
I want to talk about how we can manipulate one by manipulating the other.
The body’s stress response is a built-in gift from evolution, without it we wouldn’t be here today. This complex alarm system (the panic button being the amygdala), is more commonly known as the fight of flight response.
I’m going to try and explain how this process actually works in our brain using cute pictures, it gets a bit nerdy, but stick with me.
The Neurophysiology of Stress (the simple version)
Basically, the short version is: our amygdala signals the adrenal gland to release a few different hormones, such as adrenaline, which causes increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. These hormones also act on the pituitary gland which triggers the release of cortisol into our immune system. The amygdala then signals the hippocampus to start recording memories (so we remember to avoid this in future), and the prefrontal cortex assesses whether this is an actual threat requiring action.
Humans are unique in the fact that danger doesn’t have to be clear and present to illicit a stress response, we can create it ourselves. The mind is so powerful we can actually set off our stress response just by imagining we’re in a stressful situation. You see how this can start to get unhealthy…
But just as we can get ourselves into a stressful state, we can get ourselves out.
The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to mobilise us to act, so physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. When we exercise in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings have evolved to do over the past several million years.
Your Prescription for exercise, mood and stress
If I prescribe you 1 x exercise session per day, you should see a reduction in stress symptoms and an improvement in mood immediately…
Why is that?
Now that you’re all over the neurophysiological mechanisms that are behind the stress we feel, how exactly does exercise improve our mood and reduce our stress?
- Exercise triggers the production of more insulin receptors, thus lowering blood glucose levels
- Exercise produces FGF-2 and VEGF which build new capillaries and expand the vascular system in the brain
- Exercise increases BDNF production, which is responsible for neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons
- Exercise increases serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (feel good hormones!)
And on a physiological level, exercise can improve the stress we feel in our bodies by:
- Relaxing the resting tension of muscle spindles, breaking the stress-feedback loop to the brain
- Increasing the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure
Exercise does a whole range of juicy things to our body and our mind, and it’s virtually impossible to impact one without impacting the other – now you see why!
Just keep in mind that the more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly.
If you’re interested in reading more about this, pick up a copy of Psychiatrist, John Ratey’s book: SPARK; the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. This blog is based on the concepts discussed in Chapter 3; Stress. It’s full of stories and fascinating information about the connections between exercise and your brain, in an easily digestible format.
About the author
Let’s draw a line in the sand over stress
This won’t be easy today’s world is full of constant time pressures and worries. We are continually rushing around, meeting deadlines, feeling guilty about not spending enough time with the family, and burning the candle at both ends just to get things done.
Now we’ve known for some time now the benefits of exercise on making us feel better and more productive and in fact I wrote about the neuroscience of it all in a blog back in 2011. However, with summer approaching, and the with the days getting longer, now is the perfect time to take a stand against stress!
Exercise makes us 20% more productive
This isn’t new information, but to put it in a more quantifiable way:-
Twenty minutes of exercise in the morning will pay you back by adding an extra 80 minutes of productivity to your day. That’s a net gain of 60 minutes to your day!
It also makes us less stressed!
A recent study compared 20 minutes of exercise a day to the equivalent time spent performing mindfulness meditation and heart rate biofeedback (a way of controlling your heart rate through breathing and seeing its effect on your heart). Researchers expected mindfulness to be superior, especially in relation to maintaining attention, improving compassion and decreasing worry. They were wrong!
Exercise was just as effective as mindfulness
This surprised the authors of the study, as mindfulness directly focuses on attention, compassion and control over your thinking. Perhaps exercise has an indirect effect on these attributes as increasing your heart rate and breathing rate may challenge your body to become more aware of the “now”.
And we also know exercise is good for more than just stress and productivity
You only need to read the rest of our blogs to know that exercise benefits us in many different ways.
While reduction in blood pressure has also been shown in mindfulness studies, I doubt that they would be able to compete with the metabolic benefits of exercise. If you’re in need of reducing your blood sugars levels, or you want to drop a few centimetres around your waistline 20 minutes of high intensity exercise would suit you better.
At iNform we believe that any exercise as part of a personalised program should be done in a mindful way so that you’re not just “going through the motions.”
If you’re “wired” to move and can’t keep still, or life doesn’t enable you to find the adequate “quiet time” at home, exercise might also be a more palatable way of gaining all these benefits.
So let’s stress less and do more!
No matter whether you prefer to spend 20 minutes a day exercising or in mindful meditation we can all experience these benefits. Now is as good a time to draw a line in the sand and establish this daily habit. Your body, health and relationships will thank you for it!
I am sure that you will agree that in today’s modern society, we are all constantly physically and mentally stretched to our limits. Stress, anxiety, multi-tasking and non-stop days where we feel like we are on auto-pilot are the norm for most. Take one of my closest friends for example. She is a 29 year old mother of two beautiful but tiring toddlers and a Staffy who seriously needs to be walked daily otherwise destruction will ensue. Add to that, she works part time in a hospital, works full time as a domestic goddess, plays hockey at state league level and is a committed friend and family member. I constantly wonder how she can complete all of her day to day tasks without losing sense of herself (and her hair).
When I asked her how she does it, she explained that when she is at hockey, she is able to be in the moment. She focuses on only what is happening there and then. She doesn’t think about what’s for dinner, or what clients she will see tomorrow. She allows herself time to think about her own body, her movements, how her running technique feels and how satisfying it feels to hit a little white ball awfully hard. What she didn’t realise is that this is the definition of being mindful. Whilst it’s a buzzword at the moment, the mental training technique is both simple and powerful.
Being mindful is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensation.
Sounds interesting I know, but this practice takes one away from autopilot. Research has showed that it is effective in reducing stress and undermining destructive emotive and cognitive processes which can lead to anxiety and depression. But what I find amazing is that research has actually shown positive physical changes. Mindfulness practice can lead to a decrease grey matter in the Amygdala (the brain’s centre associated with fear and stress). This in turn leads to thickening in the pre-frontal cortex. What results in an improved higher order functions within the brain such as concentration, decision making and overall awareness – pretty powerful stuff.
One of things I love focusing on in training sessions with clients is the neural connections created with attentive movement. For example, trying to feel glutes contract when completing a single leg deadlift. This allows a better quality of movement, decreased compensations and overall better muscle recruitment. The upside of this for me is, to achieve this, you must be solely focused on the present. You cannot practice quality movement without attention, and accepting the sensation created with movement. And ladies and gentlemen, this is the definition of mindfulness!