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Five Exercises That Help Manage Anxiety—And One You Might Want to Avoid
by Amanda Williams

It’s 2018, and there seems to be no shortage of anxiety in America—for some, the ding of a news alert on their phone is enough to trigger a Pavlovian-like spike in blood pressure. But here’s the good news: Whether you feel low-key stressed or are one of 40 million Americans affected by an anxiety disorder, exercise can help manage your symptoms. Research shows that 15 to 30 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise three times a week eases anxiety, and—best of all—the effects kick in after a single session.

“The data on cardiovascular exercise and mental health is airtight,” says Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., a New York City clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. “Patients I work with have to be doing some kind of exercise, or they’re not taking care of their mental health.”

Although it’s not a substitute for medication and therapy, and every body and mind is different, exercising releases endorphins, regulating your mood. It gets you into a healthy sleep schedule, reducing fatigue and stress. Exercise also improves your self-esteem, is a good distraction and, when combined with social interaction, can help ease anxiety.

But how you get active matters. It’s important to find an activity that won’t exacerbate your condition. “For mental health, we need to think about what exercise makes someone feel good,” says Kelsey Graham, a fitness instructor, health coach, and exercise science professor at Mesa College in San Diego. The good news? You’re not limited to cardio. Give these five exercises a shot.

Mindful Strength Training

If you have anxiety, you might have trouble concentrating. To stay present, integrate mindfulness—shown to help anxiety—into activities you already enjoy. “This is something we think about in regards to yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi, but that we don’t think about when strength training,” Graham says. “It can be anything from feeling your heart pounding to noticing your hand on the barbell—that mind-body connection can be empowering.”

Strength training also boosts self-confidence, which can ease anxiety. Graham’s suggestion? The deadlift. “There’s something about picking up a heavy object from the floor, and the technicality of it,” she says. “The first time they get it, a lot of people feel excited.”

Hiking

One symptom of anxiety is irritability. Feeling prickly? Lace up your hiking boots. If a giant sequoia has ever towered over you, you’ve probably felt awe, an emotion evoked by the great outdoors and thinking about ourselves in the bigger picture. In one study, researchers found awestruck subjects had low levels of the cytokine IL-6, a marker of inflammation linked to stress. Another study found that people were more attentive and happier after spending time in lush greenery.

“Hiking provides a great metaphor for life,” says Teresa Vogt, a Colorado Springs health educator. “The journey can be both beautiful and challenging; sometimes you have to go down a hill before you can summit it. These metaphors can help us reframe our thinking about life, which can help us with anxiety.” She suggests starting with a performance-oriented goal, like completing a one-mile hike in 20 minutes.

Running

Running might not sound relaxing, but research has shown that rhythmic activities are similar to meditation and act as effective relaxation and coping techniques. “For me, the repetitive action of running provides a release in the mind,” says Michaelis. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) recommends jogging for 30 minutes, three to five times a week. Not a runner? Other repetitive motions like swimming laps or cycling can also help relieve anxiety symptoms.

Dancing

Dancing provides a positive distraction and an opportunity for social mingling. One study found that even small interactions with acquaintances contributes to happiness. “I like dancing because it’s focused on fun,” Graham says. “Whether you’re going to Zumba classes or out salsa dancing with friends, you’re getting movement in and embracing a creative outlet. For a lot of people, that helps anxiety.”

Yoga

You’ve probably been given this advice before: Whether you’re in the middle of a panic attack or feeling the buildup before a big job interview, take a few deep breaths. Turns out, there’s preliminary research to back it up. Researchers recently discovered a small group of neurons in the brain stems of mice that directly communicate respiratory function to the part of the brain responsible for either relaxation or anxiety.

To get a handle on your breathing, try yoga. Almost all types include the practice of pranayama, or controlling your breath. “A few deep belly breaths can do wonders for reducing stress,” says Vogt. If you get anxious at the thought of joining a beginner’s class, try yoga at home with Fitbit Premium to increase confidence and knowledge of poses. In a pinch for time? Squeeze in two or five minutes of mindfulness by using the Relax function on your Fitbit tracker or smartwatch.

Plus one exercise you might think twice about: High-intensity interval training burns a lot of calories in a short amount of time, but that calorie-torching pace may not be conducive to winding down. “For some people, higher-intensity exercise is an outlet,” Graham says. “For others, it might be an additional stressor.” If the latter sounds like you, the ADAA recommends limiting your high-intensity activity to one hour a week.

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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.