We all know regular physical activity comes with plenty of good-for-you-benefits, including a longer lifespan, a reduction in the risk of health issues (such as heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers) and better brain health.
Exercise can also be a pick-me-up when it comes to mental health and emotional wellbeing as it “can improve one’s mood by increasing serotonin through increase in physical activity,” says certified mental performance consultant Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, co-owner of Texas Optimal Performance & Psychological Services, LLC in Austin, Texas, and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “It decreases stress hormones and causes a decrease in stress and anxiety.”
Unfortunately, though, for some, being active doesn’t always come with a side of happy feelings. In fact, it can actually cause anxiety and stress, especially if you are already experiencing these types of mental health issues, according to a small February 2018 pilot study published in Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health.
But it isn’t the actual act of exercising that can cause mental health symptoms, Cauthen says, but rather the idea of or the meaning one places around the activity (think: high-pressure competitive environments or fear of failure) that can affect mental health.
“As positive as the results of exercise can be, for many, the act of beginning and sustaining an exercise program can create its own set of negative mental health issues,” says Carlos Davila, PES, an instructor and diversity inclusion officer at Fhitting Room and an adjunct professor of psychology at John Jay College. “For many, fitness as a space hasn’t always been welcoming.”
Issues like toxic fitness influencers and social norms regarding what “beauty” and “health” look like can mitigate the positive effect exercise can have, according to Davila. “If we are in spaces where we don’t feel seen, heard, appreciated or wanted, it makes it even more challenging to engage in an already stress- inducing activity.”
It is important to do some digging to figure out what exactly is affecting your mental health, as this is integral to figuring out what needs to change. Here’s why: If you are going into the space already stressed out or with negative expectations, it will only become much more expressed in a setting that is also inherently going to increase internal activity, Davila says.
In the meantime, though, here are a few tips to help ease your anxiety and better your mental state during your next fitness pursuit.
Davila suggests making the goals you set around that “why” SMART, which stands for:
- Specific: What do you want to accomplish?
- Measurable: How are you going to determine if you meet your goal?
- Achievable or actionable: Do you have the tools to make this happen? Also, is the goal written in a way that requires you to take action?
- Relevant or realistic: Does the goal focus on something that’s important to you?
- Time-bound: Do you have a realistic timeline for achieving your goal?
“Especially when entering a new space, it is imperative that you keep in mind why you are there and what you need from that space,” Davila says. “That ‘pre-work’ allows you to have a clear focus that can mitigate the anxiety fitness spaces may create.”
Reflecting with daily journaling post-activity can also help, Cauthen says. Her suggestion: Write about what went well, where you can improve and what your plan for the next day is.
When it comes to in-person classes, there can be a lot going on and a lot of exercises or pieces of equipment you’re not sure about if you’re new to the class. It’s common for frustration and internal anxiety to arise if you experience this type of confusion.
“One of the things that can be frustrating as an instructor is knowing that someone is confused but isn’t willing to ask the question,” Davila says. “I purposely create a space in my classes for questions that can create clarity. You are paying an instructor to teach you how to do something — consequently it is your right to ask questions that help you better understand and minimize the anxiety you have around performing the movement.”
We also tend to think people are watching us as we work out, which leads to fear of failure or fear of evaluation — two things Cauthen says may affect your mental and emotional state when participating in exercise. But the truth is, no one is really paying you any attention, Davila says.
“Part of the anxiety we feel is because we think that if we do something wrong we will be the laughing stock of the class and be ostracized for life,” he says. But that’s not really the case, so “take a breath and focus on you and why you showed up today.”
It takes a little over 15 minutes — 15 minutes and 9 seconds to be exact — for exercisers to experience an emotional uplift once they start their workout session, according to the ASICS’ Uplifting Minds study, a global study involving thousands of participants.
“This was evident across people from all genders, ages and geographical regions, regardless of the sport or intensity,” mental health and physical activity researcher Brendon Stubbs, PhD, who oversaw the ASICS study, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Stubbs points to a multitude of reasons likely to cause emotional boost while exercising that are both biological (such as stimulation of the hippocampus and other emotional processing areas of the brain, as well as the release of serotonin) and psychological (improved self-efficacy and sense of achievement).
Going without exercise for one week resulted in a drop in confidence, positivity, energy levels and the ability to cope with stress, the ASICS research revealed. So in the long run, pushing through your session may be your best. Or, Stubbs says, switch to an exercise or activity you enjoy at an intensity you enjoy.
Engage in Exercise You Enjoy
If your exercise routine is causing you any ill feelings, Stubbs suggests switching gears. “Remember, exercise is meant to be fun and challenging,” he says. “If you are not experiencing this, rest up and wait and/or try an activity you enjoy.”
If you love to dance, start taking some dance classes. If walks are more your thing, take a long one with the kids, a pet, a partner, friends or even solo. If you’re a former athlete, find a class that incorporates some of the skills you were used to working on in that sport. Or, if you’re a parent, find a class that allows your kids to participate.
“The most significant part of this shift in perception around fitness as a space is finding points of entry, things that you either have done before or have an interest in doing,” Davila says. He also notes digital fitness classes allow access without common deterrents such as commuting, carrying extra clothes or other people watching you.
However, if you are using exercise as a coping mechanism for an issue and it’s not helping, Stubbs advises seeking professional help.
It’s true: Some of the physical changes that come on with exercise — shortness of breath, a fast-beating heart, sweating — can also mimic symptoms of anxiety. But these physiological changes that accompany exercise are also “a proportionate response to the demands placed on the body to meet the needs of the activity,” Stubbs says. “You should remember that when exercising, these changes in our body are expected and needed.”
If that doesn’t help, learning how to regulate your emotions and finding ways to get more grounded in the moment can help, Cauthen says. She recommends implementing intentional breathing and grounding cues.
“Practice nasal breathing and diaphragmatic breathing in not-stressful states so when [you] begin to do an activity that increases your heart rate, [you] can breathe and regulate [your] emotions,” she says.
She also suggests identifying three objects in your environment and repeating them back to yourself. This “will allow you to ground yourself, breathe and regulate your emotions to the present moment and feel more in control and mindful of the activity.”
You may also want to avoid stimulants, such as caffeine, and focus on sleep, which Stubbs says can improve both your mindset and your performance.