The year was 1999. Companies around the globe were plagued by fear of the millennium bug. The Phantom Menace had just been released, subjecting eager cinema-goers to whatever the hell ‘Jar Jar Binks’ is meant to be. The world’s population exceeded 6 billion for the first time.
But amidst all the carnage, ‘Five’ (a quintet of hip-popping young vocalists, had just released the track that summarises the best mental health advice I can give anyone suffering with moderate anxiety: Keep on movin’.
Exercise for anxiety: simple to say, but hard to do
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Somehow, it took me a disturbingly long time to truly cotton on to the link between moving my body and caring for my mind. Fortunately, once I discovered the magic effects of exercise for anxiety, I have (sadly) never looked back.
The thing is, I’m a cheerfully lazy sort by nature. A big fan of cheese, and wine, and getting public transport everywhere over a ten minute walk away. I never enjoyed sport or exercise as a teenager. If anything, I regarded it as a punishment—a thing I had to do to make myself skinnier (but that’s another post altogether).
But when I hit rock bottom and lost my appetite, losing a lot of weight in the process, I longer felt I had to exercise to fit into a smaller size. For the first time, I approached exercise with the hope that it might just be good for my mental health.
Getting into an exercise routine
When I first started getting fit, I had the strength of a kitten and the endurance of a nervous 17 year old boy. But when I finally got out the door, to jog-shuffle-splutter my way around the block, it helped to clear some of the anxious fog in my mind.
At that point, I didn’t go in hard on the fitness, so it certainly wasn’t the only thing that helped me get better. (Dropping out my PhD and mainlining sertraline for half a year was probably the biggest influence.) I then went on a seven-month adventure around the world where I walked so many miles every day I could barely stretch my legs out — so I kept up my exercise that way.
It was only when I came home from travelling and got a desk job that I started to feel really quite anxious again. Although even then, I didn’t quite click — I think I just thought I was doomed to be an anxious person. I started exercising purely because, in a fit of insanity, I signed up to do Tough Mudder with work. Having not been to a gym in over a year, I was very sceptical about how this would go down.
Getting fit is a slow process – but it’s worth it
It was bloody hard.
But I walked until I could jog. Jogged until I could run. Then I wanted to build my strength, so I started lifting. Lifted until I could lift more. Lifted until I could haul somebody else’s body over a 10 foot wall during a muddy obstacle course. And then I flew for a week on the giddy adrenaline of what my body could do.
And throughout this time… not one bad mental health day. It was like a magic pill. I remember thinking, could this really be it? Is exercise the way to keep my anxiety at bay?
Turns out, the answer is mostly yes. My anxiety leads to a strong sense of ‘detachment’: I struggle to feel emotions, and have a disconcerting sense that I’m a visitor in my own body. My mind, body, and reality are all disconnected.
Exercise aligns the three: it’s almost like focusing a camera. When I’m ill, my mind is foggy. Exercise endorphins sharpen my worldview, and help me get my body and my mind in tune.
Take it slow and be kind to yourself
I’m finding the only way to keep at it (I have fallen off the fitness wagon more times than I care to admit) is to treat exercise like you would a counselling session, or even taking your medication. Exercise is an input, and the output is better mental health. Exercise for anxiety is legit.
Full disclosure, I still don’t love it now, but I love how it makes me feel less batshit. So I’m sucking it up and trying to make it fun. There are many ways to move your body in a joyful way, not slaving away in a gym: ten minutes of slut dropping in your bedroom is as good a start as any.
And don’t beat yourself up about it, on the days when it doesn’t go to plan. Some days I clock-watch every second of my body pump class. Some days I run for two minutes and then sidle home because I just can’t be arsed. Some days, I cancel Burn 360 and slink off to the pub, because having a pint with people who make my stomach hurt with laughter is also excellent for my mental health. Consistency really is the key—just two or three times a week, find the time to raise your heart rate, release some endorphins, and see if you notice a reduction in your anxiety afterwards.