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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Healthy Lifestyle: Exercise to Combat Anxiety

These days, American society's attitude toward diet and exercise (and many other facets of the increasingly esoteric blanket-term "lifestyle") seems schizophrenic at best. On the side of diet, there are a great many current trends - not just the fad diets that have overtaken the covers of grocery-line women's magazines for as long as many of us can remember, but also the fetishism surrounding food (creating the 'foodie' culture that was, until so recently, reserved for the privileged and upper-class), the exultation of the chef (Iron Chef America and other shows have literally turned chefs into the new rock stars, giving them exposure outside the kitchen that they so rarely had before), and turning specialty diets from the domain of the fringe groups to something embraced and normalized in nearly every demographic. We cling to anything that is healthy, even just to products that are dishonestly marketed as "healthy", while at the same time feeding our ever-expanding national waistlines with fast food, junk food, and "convenience" food.

And then there's exercise. A dirty word to some, a source of self-loathing and stress to others, exercise is that thing we all know that we should be doing, and that so few of us actually do. Research shows that fifty percent of new gym members quit within the first six months of joining a gym (IHRSA), a trend which I imagine most of us have experienced firsthand. There's no doubt that regular exercise goes against the typical American lifestyle, where hours per day are spent parked in front of the computer and where time is undoubtedly at a constant premium. We are told that we need to get that heart rate up, lose weight, and get ourselves moving on a regular basis...and yet the demands of work and family can make that extremely difficult.

If you do choose to make an effort toward exercising, the options can be overwhelming. Cardio or strength training? Yoga or pilates? Zumba or Hip Hop? The multitudinous options are a mixed blessing, providing would-be fitness aficionados a glut of information with very little indication as to which option would work best for them. A personal trainer (and for that matter, nutritionist) would be a godsend in this situation, but many of us can't afford such services in this economy. Considering all of this, it would seem that exercise creates more anxiety than it alleviates. However, exercise is only as complex as you make it, and the benefits - especially for those plagued by anxiety, stress, and tension - can be astounding.

It's hard in this day and age to go a whole day without seeing something regarding the benefits of daily exercise. Physical activity can improve everything from your performance at work to your performance in bed, and it seems that everyone, everywhere, wants to tell you about it. These proclamations are usually from doctors or salespeople, or doctors who have become salespeople for their own line of products. But what about the benefits of exercise for the anxious mind and body?

Arguably, regular physical activity is even more necessary for those with anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, and for a wide variety of reasons. Because anxiety is related to the fight-or-flight response, you can bet that a whole cocktail of chemicals are being dumped into your brain when you feel panicked and anxious, even when the feelings have no apparent root or cause. The release of adrenaline and cortisol suppresses bone-building, immunity, and digestion while boosting blood sugar and heart rate, which consequently leaves the anxious body exhausted and wired, a sensation with which many of you are likely familiar.

Fortunately, exercise works to counteract the negative physical and mental effects of anxiety, stress, and anxiety-related disorders, no matter where that anxiety and stress is coming from. As you exercise, your body will release those delightful little endorphins, you'll burn through that toxic, anxious, negative energy, and your mood will be lifted. Many scientists and doctors suggest that the symbolic meaning behind working out regularly is just as useful to the brain as the workout itself.

So what exercises are best for the individual looking to combat anxiety? The answer is essentially anything that gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping. While strength training is important (and quite necessary, if you are on a weight-loss diet), it doesn't show the mental benefit that aerobic exercise exhibits. The best option for this aerobic, blood pumping exercise depends pretty much entirely on the individual, but choosing your program isn't as daunting as you might think.

Are you introverted by nature? Pursue something solitary. Perhaps you have no time or money to join a gym...but many workout DVD's can be purchased for reasonable prices on, and the users post reviews on the product's page, thus giving you an idea of the overall quality. Say you don't have enough room to do an exercise DVD? You can walk in your neighborhood (if it's safe!) or on local trails and in parks. If you prefer, exercise equipment can often be found at rock bottom prices on CraigsList and at local garage sales. As an introvert myself, I have always enjoyed going to the gym, but have chosen not to participate in the group activities.

So you're extroverted? Join some classes! You can research any exercise class online, and most gyms will let you attend once for free, just to try things out. Classes like Zumba have great reviews and establish a community focused on fun and health, which could be an awesome outlet for your anxious energy. Snag some others at your job and create a group that focuses on working out together each day after work, or on your lunch breaks. Find a buddy who would like to get in shape and join a gym together...whatever works!

Most importantly, you should choose some form of workout that you can do at least five days a week, for at least 30 minutes per day. Why? Because scientists and doctors alike will tell you that consistency is the most important aspect of any workout. Even if that 30 minutes is broken down into two or three sessions, making the exercise a regular part of your routine will have many benefits, even more than I've listed here.

Keep it simple, give yourself goals that are attainable and plans that can be worked into your every-day routine. Listen to yourself and your own preferences, and don't try to push yourself too far out of your comfort zone all at once. Practicing a nutritionally balanced anti-anxiety diet and incorporating regular exercise into your routine will go a long way toward easing your mind...and promoting your good health.

And as for the schizophrenic American viewpoint on diet...we'll get to that another day. 

-The Calm Cook

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