Stress and anxiety at any level can be hard to manage. If you’re searching for relief, try turning to exercise. Even the smallest amount of physical activity can make a significant difference and reduce stress.
“Anxiety affects our minds and bodies. Exercise can serve as a natural antidepressant, boosting our mood at the same time it improves our health,” said Megan LaDrigue, ATC CSCS, an athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System. “You don’t need to join a gym to exercise. The world is full of opportunities to be more active. You can add in short exercise sessions throughout the day to recharge your mood and energy.”
How Anxiety Impacts Your Health
If not addressed, anxiety can impact your mental and physical health. “Anxiety causes an imbalance in the chemicals and hormones that support our brain, immune system, digestive health and sleep,” said LaDrigue.
Chronic stress can lower our feel-good hormones – serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol increases when we’re under pressure or anxious. As a result of these shifts, you may experience:
► Trouble concentrating and loss of productivity at work or school
► Irritability and moodiness
► Difficulty sleeping
► Weight gain and digestive problems
► High blood pressure and increased risk for other diseases
How Exercise Can Break The Stress Cycle
“By adding exercise into your daily routine, you can begin to manage anxiety and improve your overall health,” said Ladrigue. Exercise offers many benefits, including:
► Shifting your focus: Focusing on your physical activity is a chance to take a mental break from daily tasks and recharge.
► Improving mood and confidence: When you exercise, your heart contracts more frequently, increasing blood flow to the brain and triggering changes in those feel-good chemicals. These changes improve mood and confidence. Over time, exercise can also help build resilience by increasing your ability to tolerate stress.
► Enhancing concentration and productivity: Exercise activates the areas in the brain that control how we think and act. For example, physical activity can improve your ability to plan, organize and monitor behavior and tasks.
► Improving sleep: Fatigue can increase feelings of stress and anxiety, which increase your risk for insomnia or poor sleep. Exercise improves your ability to get the quality, restorative sleep that you need to recharge your mind and body.
3 Steps To Starting An Anxiety-Fighting Exercise Routine
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. “But you don’t need to do all of that exercise at once. If you’re just getting started, gradually build exercise into your daily routine to create a healthy habit,” LaDrigue said.
Ladrigue recommends these three steps to build an anxiety-busting fitness routine:
- Make it fun: Whether it’s walking or weightlifting, if exercise doesn’t inspire you and make you feel good, it won’t help you manage anxiety. If being social helps motivate you, find a workout buddy and encourage each other to keep moving. Explore new types of exercise by taking an online or in-person fitness class.
- Create a flexible schedule: If finding time in your day to exercise adds to your stress, try working in shorter activity periods. Do some stretches while you’re waiting for the coffee to brew. Take a walk during lunch or while you’re talking on the phone. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Park your car farther away from your destination and walk the extra distance.
- Set goals: Start by setting short-term goals for your fitness routine. Record your progress to stay focused and motivated. As exercise becomes a daily habit, set longer-term goals. For example, try a community walk or run, join a hiking club or participate in a local sports league.
Build An Effective Workout Plan
If you’re new to exercise or have an underlying health condition, check with your primary care physician before starting a fitness routine. Had an injury in the past? See a physical therapist or sports medicine provider to avoid future injuries.
If you’ve taken a break from exercise or are exercising for the first time, start slowly. Over time, you can gradually increase the time and intensity of your workout to meet your goals.
When picking an exercise program, Ladrigue suggests including these elements:
► Warm up: Start with five minutes of activity like jumping jacks or running in place to increase the blood flow to your muscles.
► Dynamic stretching: Gently move through small or large ranges of motion to elongate the muscle tissue. For example, you can try arm circles or walking quad stretches to get your muscles warmed up.
► Strength training: If you’re new to strength training, start with light weights. You can start with three sets of 10 repetitions for each muscle group. Combine sets for a muscle group on the front of the body immediately followed with a set for a muscle group on the back of the body, like biceps and triceps. This approach is called “super-setting.” It keeps your heart rate elevated while giving the working muscle group time to recover. It also increases your metabolic burn, the rate at which you burn calories during exercise.
► Aerobic activity: Choose from a variety of activities, like walking, running, biking, swimming or dancing. Light- to moderate-intensity exercise can help you recover at the end of a strength training workout while increasing oxygen and blood flow to the working tissues.
► Cool down: Hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds to elongate the muscle tissue used in your workout. This type of stretching helps prevent or minimize soreness.
“While starting a new habit like exercise can seem daunting, stay positive. Feel empowered – you’re taking steps that will improve your overall mental and physical health for years to come,” said LaDrigue.
Megan LaDrigue is an athletic trainer who works with the Henry Ford Sports Medicine Sports Performance Program.
With communities across Michigan preparing for forecasts this week including temperatures in the 80s and in some places low 90s, this is an opportune time for the Michigan High School Athletic Association to provide its annual reminders on training in hot weather as fall sports teams are set to begin practices next week and competition later this month.
Each year, the MHSAA provides information to its member schools to help them prepare for hot weather practice and game conditions during the late summer and early fall. Practices for all Fall 2022 sports – cross country, football, Lower Peninsula girls golf, boys soccer, Lower Peninsula girls swimming & diving, Lower Peninsula boys and Upper Peninsula girls tennis, and volleyball – may begin Monday, Aug. 8.
The “Health & Safety” page of the MHSAA Website has links to several information sources, including the MHSAA preseason publication Heat Ways, which is available for download and includes valuable information on heat management in addition to requirements and resources regarding head injuries and sudden cardiac arrest.
The first days of formal practices in hot weather should be more for heat acclimatization than the conditioning of athletes, and practices in such conditions need planning to become longer and more strenuous over a gradual progression of time. Schools also must consider moving practices to different locations or different times of day, or change practice plans to include different activities depending on the conditions. Furthermore, football practice rules allow for only helmets to be worn during the first two days, only shoulder pads to be added on the third and fourth days, and full pads to not be worn until the fifth day of team practice.
The MHSAA advises student-athletes to make sure to hydrate all day long – beginning before practice, continuing during and also after practice is done. Water and properly-formulated sports drinks are the best choices for hydration.
A number of member schools follow the MHSAA’s Model Policy for Managing Heat & Humidity, which while not mandated for member schools was adopted as a rule for MHSAA postseason competition in 2013. The plan directs schools to begin monitoring the heat index at the activity site once the air temperature reaches 80 degrees, and provides recommendations when the heat index reaches certain points, including ceasing activities when it rises above 104 degrees. (When the temperature is below 80 degrees, there is no combination of heat and humidity that will result in a need to curtail activity.) The model heat & humidity policy is outlined in a number of places on the MHSAA Website, including as part of Heat Ways.