A jam-packed day, your in-laws visiting, a big race—chances are you’ve experienced feelings of anxiety at some point. Sometimes, these feelings can actually work in our favor—race-day jitters that propel us to a PR, for example, or the motivation to stop procrastinating and finally get stuff done. But sometimes, those feelings can be so overwhelming that they stop you dead in your tracks.
“Worry, fear and nervousness are a normal reaction to stressful events,” says Shannon Crowley, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science at North Carolina Wesleyan College. “But if those symptoms start to interfere with everyday activities, it’s time to discuss it with a healthcare provider.”
Research suggests that women are twice as likely as men to experience the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Experts believe this is due to a combination of hormones, brain chemistry and societal expectations of women. Because of these expectations, women who struggle with anxiety often do so silently for fear of being told they are overreacting—or worse, “crazy.” Experts have found that the average woman waits nine to 12 years after first experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorder before seeking professional help.
But the sooner you seek help, the sooner you can feel better. A variety of treatments are available, from medication to counseling. And one of the most effective treatments may surprise you: sweat.
“Exercise has been shown to help with core symptoms of anxiety disorders, including sleep problems, anxious symptoms and cognitive difficulties,” says Crowley. “While we don’t fully understand how exercise may help to manage anxiety in women, it’s possible it’s linked to emotion regulation, stress processing and mood.”
To maximize the mental health benefits of your sweat session, take these tips from the experts:
1. Do it for fun. Just because your friend swears by yoga doesn’t mean you must downward dog, too. Crowley says there’s no evidence that one type of exercise is best for managing anxiety; rather, you should do something you find safe, enjoyable and worth doing on the regular.
2. Find the Zen in it. A 2016 study from Rutgers University found that meditation and aerobic exercise, when done together, pack a powerful one-two punch for mental health. Turn your run into a mindful experience with an app like Meditation on the Run, which coaches you through a full mind-body experience while logging your miles.
3. Hit the trails. At least once a week, escape to a park, forest or nature trail. Japanese researchers have found those who exercise a minimum of 20 minutes per week in a wooded area have lower stress hormone levels than those who train in an urban environment.
4. Take a deep breath. End your workouts with the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, this 90-second practice taps into the body’s natural relaxation response by activating the super-calming powers of the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Breathe in silently through your nose, counting slowly to four.
- Hold your breath for seven slow counts.
- Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for eight slow counts.
- Repeat this 4-7-8 cycle three times.