It has been well established that mental and physical health are closely linked together and significantly influence each other.
Around 2600 years ago, the Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher Gautama Buddha stated: “To keep the body in good health is a duty. Otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear”. Later, John F. Kennedy remarked. “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, but it is also the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
Recently science has been catching up and confirms what I and many others have experienced firsthand. That physical exercise plays a vital role in the treatment of mental health disorders.
In this article, I will describe the 3 main reasons why exercise can help manage social anxiety. These are:
- positive changes in the brain
- decreased anxiety-sensitivity
- improved self-esteem and self-efficacy
3 Reasons Exercise Reduces Your Anxiety
1. Changes In The Brain
Bigger biceps, better brain?
If you thought exercise would only benefit your body, be prepared to be surprised.
Research has shown that physical activity changes the brain and can lead to improved memory, better cognitive functioning, and the prevention of some neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s.
Some of these changes also have a positive effect on your mental health. Exercise can, among other things:
- decrease stress
- reduce anxiety
- improve the processing of emotions
- lead to a (short-term) state of euphoria
- increase attention and focus
The impact of exercise on the brain is so profound that Noakes and Spedding (2012) argue that regular exercise is necessary for brain health. In their article, they state: “Without it, we are at risk of being obese and diabetic and developing diseases linked to brain function, such as psychiatric disorders, dementia, and even violent behaviour.”
The authors think that the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) might have played a vital role.
This neurotrophin increases with exercise and impacts the brain in many ways.
For example, It increases the connectivity between neurons, improves oxygen uptake in the brain, and plays a role in psychiatric disorders.
But BDNF is not the only neurotransmitter that physical activity impacts positively.
By moving your body, you also increase levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
At the same time, you decrease the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
All of these changes can reduce anxiety levels and help you to manage stress better.
2. Decreased Anxiety Sensitivity
Racing heart, sweaty palms, blushing…when you have anxiety, you experience these sensations fairly regularly.
Anxiety sensitivity describes the fear of these sensations.
You are afraid of the physical symptoms that show up when you become anxious and misinterpret these sensations as dangerous. In turn, you become even more nervous.
It’s a vicious cycle.
Hence reducing anxiety sensitivity is an essential step in decreasing your anxiety levels. Research shows that physical exercise is a great tool for reducing anxiety sensitivity.
Especially aerobic exercise, such as running, seems to have a positive effect.
Why is this so?
It seems that endurance exercise is some type of exposure therapy.
You expose yourself to the sensations you fear: your heart beating faster, your sweating, and more rapid breathing.
By doing this, you learn that while these sensations are uncomfortable, they are natural and nothing to be afraid of.
Research done by LeBouthillier and Asmunson (2015) shows that the anxiety sensitivity reducing effects of aerobic exercise are achieved across the anxiety spectrum and irrespective of gender.
The researchers also found that you don’t even need to exercise as much as is generally recommended for health. The anxiety-reducing effects are noticeable at much lower doses already.
Equally fascinating is that aerobic exercise alone can be just as effective in reducing anxiety sensitivity as is aerobic exercise combined with cognitive treatment
3. Increased Self-Efficacy
What is self-efficacy? Self-efficacy describes your belief that you can succeed in certain situations.
When you have low self-efficacy, you worry and doubt yourself and your capabilities.
With regards to exercise, self-efficacy encompasses your opinions about your ability to successfully engage in physical activity.
Other ‘self variables connected to self-efficacy are self-esteem, self-mastery, and self-competence. All of these are positively influenced by following a regular, structured exercise program.
What has this to do with anxiety and especially social anxiety?
Well, think about it. All of these terms basically express how good you feel about yourself.
And how good you feel about yourself impacts how you relate to others and cope in social situations.
Simply put: how good you feel about yourself influences the level of your social anxiety.
Research has shown that people with social anxiety tend to be more critical towards themselves and have lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.
A regular exercise habit improves your self-esteem and self-efficacy and hence can positively influence how you deal with social situations.
Which Exercise Is Best For Reducing Anxiety?
Before I describe the research, let me be clear about one thing: any exercise program you follow is better than no exercise at all.
With that out of the way, let’s see what the research says.
Most of the research on the interplay between anxiety and exercise to date has been conducted on aerobic exercise.
Regular aerobic exercise’s positive effects, such as walking, running, and cycling, are widely accepted and well documented. And not only do higher intensity aerobic exercises yield benefits, but also low-intensity forms of aerobic training, such as yoga or tai chi.
Shamus and Cohen (2009) state that there may be no best form of aerobic exercise for anxiety reduction. So if you don’t exercise at all, pick one form of aerobic training that you think you’ll like and start there.
Maybe you prefer to simply go for long walks. Perhaps you will fall in love with running. Maybe you try out yoga or tai chi and stick with that.
When it comes to aerobic exercise, any form seems to be benefitting people with anxiety.
But what about anaerobic exercises, such as weight lifting?
In recent years researchers began shifting their focus away from only aerobic exercise. They included resistance training in their studies on the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise as well.
And it turns out resistance exercise training can be just as beneficial as endurance exercise.
A meta-analysis conducted by Gordon et al. (2017) found that weight training can significantly reduce anxiety both in healthy adults and in adults with mental illness.
They analyzed 16 studies that covered more than 900 people and found that weight training’s anxiety-reducing effects were comparable with medication or psychotherapy. The results were seen among all age groups and sexes and were independent of intensity, how long the program lasted and how often people went to the gym.
There you have it.
Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise programs can have positive effects on anxiety levels.
What matters most is not so much the specific type of exercise you choose but that you find it pleasurable so that you stick with it in the long run.
Also, you need to view its overall potential for reducing tension.
That means you also need to consider organizational constraints, such as time, how well you can fit it into your schedule, and facilities’ availability.
For example, let’s say you want to start your exercise regimen with weight lifting. However, you live in a rural area where the next gym is an hour’s drive from your home. Going there is a considerable time commitment, and that makes you anxious. Plus, the mere thought of putting a foot into a gym makes you want to throw up.
Well, maybe you should reconsider your choice.
In that situation, maybe going for long walks or runs through nature would be the best exercise to start.
Exercising in nature or green spaces is generally more beneficial than exercising in urban environments for anxiety reduction. A study by Song et al. (2018), for example, showed that that walking through forest areas has a more significant mood-enhancing effect than walking through urban areas. The positive results were also more pronounced for individuals with generally high anxiety levels than those who are generally less anxious.
Regular exercise is a crucial tool in your toolbox to manage anxiety.
Being active not only improves your physical health but has also proven beneficial effects on the brain.
For some people, a structured and regular exercise program is all they need to better manage social anxiety. For others, it is an integral part of the treatment plan.
However, everyone who cares about their mental health needs to make physical fitness a part of their lives.
Think of exercise as a habit, like brushing your teeth every morning or going to bed each night.
And while there is no perfect form of exercise, it is vital to implement a routine that you can follow long-term.