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How to Escape Anxiety with Exercise

and improve your mental health by breaking a sweat!

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Anyone struggling with anxiety knows that it can be a royal pain in the butt to try and escape from the feelings of fear and hopelessness. Most of us have tried mindfulness, meditation, coloring, reading, breathing, baking, journaling, you name it. However, no matter what I try, my mind always finds a way to wander back to my worries. But there is one escape for me that always seems to work, and it comes in the form of exercise. Yes, those other tactics work well depending on the scenario, but I find that exercise creates an escape unlike any other.

Exercise has been a part of my life since I was around 13 years old. It did not start out from the healthiest place, as I was going through an eating disorder at the time, but over time developed into something special. Taking that hour or so for myself has become one of the most important parts of my day. It is an hour to leave the world behind and focus on my health and wellness, mental and physical.

I think exercise works so well for me because it requires my full attention, or at least I make it that way. No cell phone, no thinking about work, no talking to other people, just focusing on my body, breathe and movements. My attention is on my muscles and how they are activating. It’s on the music and following the beat. And sometimes, it’s just on my survival, because sometimes you take a class that makes you wonder how you will ever finish. You watch the seconds ticking away, wondering if time has slowed because the burn is that strong.

I allow myself to get lost entirely in the moment during that hour, and it can usually turn the day around if I am not in a good place. The best part is exercise has become more affordable and more accessible over the years. You do not have to have a gym membership to workout anymore. Workouts in your living room, basement, or garage can be just as effective as workouts at a big box gym or boutique studio if those are not accessible to you or just not your thing. The types of online classes offered are widely varied, and setting up a home gym is easier than you think.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

The first step is figuring out what interests you most. Do you prefer more heart-pumping, high-intensity workouts, or something slow and calming? Are you looking to build muscle, tone up, or just break a sweat? What type of equipment do you have available? A yoga mat, weights, mini bands, etc.? There is so much you can do with so little. Heck, you can even find objects around the house to substitute for weights if that is your speed i.e.: water bottles, wine bottles, books.

Making sure you are doing something you enjoy is the most crucial part because we use it to bust stress and escape from anxiety.

If you opt for classes, finding a trainer that makes you feel good about yourself is key. One of my absolute favorites is Sydney Cummings, who I discuss briefly in my book, Anxiety Diary of an Ordinary Girl. Her goal is to make fitness accessible to everyone, and she posts new workouts daily, for free, on YouTube. She creates a structured program, so it is like having your own personal trainer. She is genuine and transparent, with her unedited videos showing how she works just as hard as you are. She also focuses on positive self-talk, self-love, and working on physical and mental health in tandem, making me love her even more. Plus, at the end of every workout, she gives you a from-the-soul pep talk to encourage you to be your best and stay motivated even when you want to give up. Having an upbeat, inspiring soul on the other side of the screen is a necessity.

Sydney is not the only great trainer out there, although she is incredible. You can find magical instructors in any workout genre—yoga, pilates, indoor cycle, HIIT, etc. A quick Google search will provide you with endless options. You can also try to support local studios in your town and take Zoom classes if they are offered. I have tested out just about every class out there over the past few years and have pleasantly surprised time and time again with the quality of the workouts and the instructors.

One of the beautiful things about taking classes is that you enter into a community of like-minded individuals. Having anxiety, I know it can sometimes be challenging to get outside of your comfort zone and connect with other individuals. You just want to hold up inside and hide with your fears until you feel better. You do not want to open up to other people and talk about what is going on inside your head because it is easier to deal with it independently. But the connections you can make with individuals at the gym, a boutique studio class, or an online fitness community all stem from one place, your shared love of fitness.

Developing these relationships can be great for your anxiety. You never have to get into the “deep” stuff with them if you don’t want to because you always have the class as a default discussion. The other members are just friendly faces you may be excited to see anytime you go into a class or log-on for an at-home sweat sesh, which creates a sense of belonging and can help you feel more comfortable, taking you away from the hamster wheel in your head. So now, not only are you improving your physical health, but you are contributing to your mental wellbeing and boosting your social life.

If people aren’t your jam, that is okay, too! Classes are just as fulfilling and fun hanging by yourself. Walks are also a favorite of mine for when I want some alone time. I throw in a pair of headphones, put on my running shoes, and tune into my favorite podcast for a stroll around the block. Getting out in nature and breathing the fresh air is essential for people with anxiety. Being held up inside at home or at work can increase stress levels, especially with a lot of us working from home now. I encourage everyone to take a daily walk to get that vitamin D, stretch their limbs, and disconnect.

Photo by Delaney Van on Unsplash

No matter what type of exercise you choose, there are innumerable benefits. Anxiety sufferers often like to be in control, and a fitness routine gives us a little bit of control, which can be comforting. Exercise boosts endorphins, so it naturally boosts your mood. Drinking caffeine when anxious often makes my anxiety much worse, which is why I have given it up, but exercise gives you the energy boost you need without the jitters and eventual crash.

Expending energy on something positive takes energy away from ruminating on unlikely impending doom and everyday stressors.

Exercising also tends to encourage healthier eating, which is important for mental and physical health. And probably my favorite benefit of all, increased quality of sleep. I always sleep much better on the days I get in a good workout.

If you have worried about your heart racing during a workout and causing more anxiety, set that aside. There are plenty of options that keep your heart rate steady yet give you a good sweat and escape. If you are a beginner and are afraid to set up a new routine, step outside your box. Remember, everyone was a beginner at some point. And if you think this won’t work for you, humor me and give it a try. I almost guarantee you won’t regret it. Exercise can be the best escape from anxiety and will provide you with a weekly outlet to release whatever.

Share in the comments: What’s your go-to exercise routine to escape from anxiety?

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