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.
When you've been hit with an injury, it's natural to want to get back to your regular activities as soon as possible. In fact, it's not uncommon for athletes to sidestep doctors' orders and return to the field or the court before an injury has healed.
"It doesn’t matter how much you train, or how much you prepare, injuries are going to happen, especially if you're an athlete," says Jamie Schwab, an athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System. "But the real trouble arises when athletes try to play through their pain without allowing sufficient time for recovery."
Risks Of Returning Too Soon After Injury
If you sprain your ankle during a cross country run, it can be tempting to finish the race. Unfortunately, hiding your pain and powering through the activity can actually make matters worse.
"If you continue to work out after suffering from an injury, you run the risk of furthering that injury," Schwab says. So what began as a minor ankle sprain can evolve into a major sprain that sidelines you for weeks.
Returning to play after surgery demands extra precautions. "Athletes are a lot more susceptible to re-injury after returning from surgery, especially if they don't complete the entire 9-month or year-long rehabilitation protocol," Schwab says. In some cases, you can exacerbate an injury to such a degree that you'll never be able to participate in the same capacity.
A Safe Return To Play
The road back to play after an injury is a long and winding one. Before you can even consider returning to exercise, you need to reduce swelling, get pain under control and get your range of motion back to almost normal.
"The recovery process takes time," Schwab says. "But if you stick with it, and you take it seriously, it's going to be a whole lot easier for you to return to the playing field in a timely manner."
Once you get pain and swelling under control, you can focus on agility and weight exercises that will help you regain strength and slowly return to baseline. The key tenets for a safer return to play:
► Be honest about your abilities: "So many athletes are afraid to tell the truth," Schwab says. "But if you're hurting and you're not competing at your full potential, you're letting your team down and yourself down, too." Even worse, you could increase your risk of further injury.
► Focus on building strength: Strength training is critical. It can help you become faster, stronger and more agile on the field. It can also help you recover more quickly after an injury.
► Listen to your body: If something doesn't feel right, pay attention to it. Talk to your athletic trainer or a physical therapist to get to the bottom of what's bugging you and put a plan in place to address it.
Boosting Performance Over The Long Haul
Unfortunately, not every coach and athletic trainer stresses the importance of a maintenance program. In fact, focused training and maintenance exercises are key to preventing injuries in the first place.
"The rehabilitation exercises you begin doing on day one after injury need to be maintained at least three to four times each week, indefinitely," Schwab says. "If you follow that regimen, all of your muscular nagging strains will no longer be a problem because your body is constantly adapting to the stresses. It's conditioned, it's strong, it can withstand the constant changes in direction."
Most importantly, don't be afraid to try complementary strategies. Practice using a foam roller, try cupping to release tension in the muscles and enhance blood flow and consider getting a monthly massage.
Jamie Schwab, AT, ATC, SCAT, CSCS, is an athletic trainer with Henry Ford Sports Medicine and works with student athletes at Edsel Ford High School. She is a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist.
To find a sports medicine doctor or athletic trainer at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/sports.