The year is 1999. Companies around the globe are plagued by fear of the millennium bug. The Phantom Menace has just been released, subjecting eager cinema-goers to whatever the hell ‘Jar Jar Binks’ is meant to be. The world’s population has exceeded 6 billion for the first time.
But amidst all the carnage, ‘Five’, a dedicated quintet of hip-popping young vocalists have just released the track which not only became the 16th biggest selling boy band single of all time, but also the best piece of advice I can give anyone suffering with moderate anxiety: Keep on movin’.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it took me a disturbingly long time to truly cotton on to the link between moving my body and caring for my mind. But once I discovered the magic effect of exercise for anxiety, I have (sadly) never looked back.
Some background on me: I am 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).
Until, that was, my anxiety led to my mental health hitting rock bottom. I had lost a lot of weight, and no longer felt motivated to exercise to fit into a smaller size. For the first time, in desperation, I flirted with the idea that exercise might just be good for my mental health.
Now, I had the approximate 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.
I didn’t go in hard on the fitness. I did drop out of my PhD and get a physically demanding job, so I was sort of fit without thinking about it—and also taking a shedload of sertraline, so it was difficult to pinpoint the blame. 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 again, I was fit without really thinking about it.
It was only when I came home from travelling and got a desk job that I started to feel really quite anxious again. And I’d been healthy for a while, so I put this down to the stress of trying to start an adult career. It all came together surprisingly quickly, actually; I got a good job that I enjoyed, made friends, found a flat. But I still felt anxious, and couldn’t identify why. Maybe this is just who you are, a voice said. Maybe you’ll always be this way.
Even then, I didn’t quite click. 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.
It was bloody hard. I couldn’t walk for three days after my first session, having gone in slightly too enthusiastically.
So. 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 yes. One of my biggest mental health problems has been that 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.
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.
As I said, I’ve never been an exercise fan. 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.
I plan to write more posts about how exactly to get started with exercise for anxiety; including top tips for free or very cheap exercises. So watch this space, and let me know in the comments what your experience of anxiety and exercise are.
And in the meantime? Keep on movin’.
Love Nic x