Your Toolbelt Blog

This is Your Brain On Exercise

So, I’m waiting for Jill (not her real name), my 3 p.m. client to arrive, and she does—fifteen minutes late and hitting the ground running. She’s talking very quickly, and fidgeting like mad with some fidget toys that I keep on the coffee table in my office. Jill tells me that her anxiety has gone through the roof over the past three weeks since we last talked.  So, we start exploring what might have caused her “relapse.”  (What I call a return to intense anxiety after a period of low anxiety).

“I don’t know, “ she says, “nothing’s going wrong with my boyfriend and me, except that we’ve been arguing more over the past week, but I was feeling anxious before that. Work is okay, and my sleep is bad again, but I think that’s because of my anxiety.” “Anything else change? “ I ask Jill. “Well, “ she tells me, “I was doing circuit training every other day, and I haven’t been able to do that for the past two  and a half weeks  because I twisted my ankle.” “So, have you been able to exercise at all?” “No, it’s been too painful.” “When did your anxiety start escalating?” “A couple of days after I twisted my ankle.”

It wasn’t difficult to pinpoint the likely culprit for her relapse—in this case, it was her lack of exercise. Whenever one of my clients experiences an anxiety relapse, I play Sherlock and eliminate suspects until I find the culprit, and, most of the time, it is letting a coping strategy slide—not the stressor—that elevates anxiety.  When it comes to both anxiety and depression, exercise or the lack thereof, plays a key role in excellent mental health or mental breakdown.

There have been numerous studies on how exercise compares to medications and therapy (usually cognitive-behavioral therapy) in treating anxiety and depression. Most reach the same conclusion—exercise is as effective as medication or therapy in treating both anxiety and depression in the short term.

What is truly fabulous, however, is that longitudinal studies are showing that exercise actually beats out medication much of the time over the long haul. This is likely because once people start exercising regularly, they’re likely to continue to exercise—because the of many benefits they enjoy from exercising—whereas people often prefer to get off medication as soon as they possibly can.

The greatest effect for improving mood and mental health in general appears to be the combination of therapy and exercise.  My hypothesis is that this is because while exercise treats the symptoms of anxiety, therapy treats both symptoms and the underlying causes.  Since, however, therapy doesn’t always provide immediate relief, the way exercise does, the two in tandem team well together.

Aside from mental health, brain and body health improves as well, too. Studies are increasingly showing that regular exercise:

  • Is protective against Alzheimer’s
  • Improves memory
  • Improves flexibility (both mental and physical)
  • Improves balance and coordination
  • Boosts self-esteem
  • Improves sleep

I could go and on about the benefits of regular exercise, but really, at this point, unless you have been living in a cave for the past 30 years, I’m sure you know by now that exercise is good for you. Often, however, our problem is that knowing that something is good for us does not necessarily translate to us doing it.

Sometimes, the block we have about exercise is due to some deeper issue that is best worked through with a therapist’s help. Most of the time, however, we put obstacles in our path to exercising because of inertia. You may recall from your high school physics class that inertia is the scientific notion that bodies in motion stay in motion and bodies at rest stay at rest and to change from one state to another requires a significant output of energy.

This is what happens to us when we stop exercising—inertia sets in. Our initial reaction to not exercising after developing the habit is one of discomfort, dis-ease—it doesn’t “feel” right, and our mood goes down, our anxiety goes up. We want to get back to that good feeling of exercise. It is critical that, while you’re feeling that way, you get back into exercise as soon as possible. Otherwise, we acclimate, as humans do, and develop inertia against exercising. Then we become “too tired,” or “too busy” to exercise. Starting an exercise program then feels uncomfortable, painful even, and requires a great deal of energy to get going.

It is helpful, knowing about inertia, to start off any exercise program with baby steps. Most gyms and exercise videos will caution you to consult your doctor before starting any program, and this is prudent if you have a serious health condition and/or are starting a very vigorous exercise program, but nearly everyone can walk and will benefit greatly from walking, even short distances, on a regular basis.  So, try walking a little bit every day, gradually lengthening your walks and, perhaps, picking up the pace as well.

Aside from those with mobility issues, I recommend walking to all my clients, even those who are quite physically active. This is because walking –outside preferably—stimulates us bilaterally, causing the hemispheres of our brains to communicate more effectively and rapidly with each other (for more information on bilateral stimulation and its effects on the brain, check out Francine Shapiro’s or Laurel Parnell’s work). This increased brain activity leads to endorphin release, causing feelings of calm and relaxation, and we often find we can think through problems in our lives more effectively while walking. Couples, too, may find that they can communicate more easily with each other while walking than when they’re sitting down.

Really, any form of moderate exercise helps alleviate depression and anxiety, so if walking isn’t your gig, try something else to get your body moving—that is key.  In general, however, higher intensity workouts (such as running or circuit training) are best for depression and severe anxiety, whereas lower intensity workouts (such as yoga or walking) are great for general anxiety because they promote relaxation and reconnection with your Self in the Now.

Which brings us back to my client, Jill. So, Jill had been highly anxious most of her life, and had tried a variety of treatments, including medication, therapy, and exercise. She had found that she felt best when she was both exercising intensely and in therapy. But, now we had a situation where she couldn’t do the exercise that she found worked best for her.

It would be easy, and many do fall down this hole, of just letting all that great self-care and exercise go, and wallow in a pity party for our lost exercise routine. That wouldn’t do you or your anxious, depressed brain any favors, and it wasn’t helpful for Jill, either. Instead, we developed an alternative exercise program on non-impact, intensive exercise (swimming), which, while not her ideal, did the trick for her anxiety while her ankle healed. I highly recommend, (with your doctor’s approval, of course), that if you are similarly exiled from your usual exercise, to find an alternative and quick!—more inertia sets in.

For more on the wonderful effects of exercise on our brains and bodies, I can recommend Dr. Daniel Amen’s, Dr. Dan Siegel’s, and Dr. Andrew Weil’s works.

Until next time—Life is breathing (Kate Bush).

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