Exercise, Fear and Anxiety


Do you suffer from HIPPOPOTOMONSTROSESQUIPEDALIOPHOBIA? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but if you ever feel afraid and/or anxious about exercising then you are part of normal society. The thought of exercise raises common emotional responses; What will I look like? Will people laugh at me? It’s going to be uncomfortable. If you can relate to that stirring of emotions then you should read on. By the way, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia is a fear of long words but don’t stress, we will keep them short in this message.

Fears and Anxiety can sometimes cause panic attacks or at least a raise in heart rate and a feeling of stress.  Natural instincts often make us feel like running away, yet sometimes our subconscious instead tells us to control ourselves, stay put and conquer. Sometimes just recognising and acknowledging the anxiety can be the catalyst for coping with the situation.  While many people won’t make that direct admission of fear/anxiety, you should understand that others are feeling the same as you are. Just remembering that fact can help deal with the worry and assist you to break through your barrier and succeed.

The Human Brain - Wikipedia

Research consistently demonstrates the benefits of exercise for both our physical and mental wellbeing, and that exercise is just as effective as medicinal remedies for anxiety. Exercise calms sensory nervous systems, stimulates the release of feel-good hormones, and lowers sensitivity to anxiety and fear. Unfortunately, exercise can be the trigger to anxious, fearful thoughts. Anxiety before committing to exercise releases the stress hormone Cortisol. Our brains associate Cortisol with a dangerous situation, hence the elevated feelings of anxiety. Exercise can also induce a rise in Cortisol leading us to feel more anxious and fearful. So how do we reconcile that information with the benefits of exercise? Well the answer is simple really. This is where we get to teach our brain something new, but only if we ‘take the plunge’ and commit to exercising.

In the longer-term, exercise is associated with lower cortisol levels and nervous system arousal overall. This is because regular exercise teaches our brain that the exercise-induced rise in Cortisol levels isn’t a danger sign. As the brain re-adjusts, the temporary increase in Cortisol levels becomes tolerated so that over time we end up with an overall reduction in stress response and nervous system arousal that leads to greater calm. Result, Exercise 1: Cortisol 0, and a healthier you.

Ultimately you have control over your own health and fitness in the choices you make every day. So, why not make the choice to a) admit your anxiety about exercise, and b) be brave enough to start. We don’t mean get out now and run multiple laps of you block to show the neighbours what a brave person you are, we simply mean start somewhere that you can manage. To assist you here are some tips that may help:

1. Start in a comfortable environment. You can begin to exercise in your own. Try dancing or walking/jogging in place. It might look a little silly (so close the curtains!), but they are good starting points and if you have been sedentary for a while they are good ways to get your heart pumping. Don’t like those ideas, then get on Google and find one that works for you, after all if it doesn’t fit your persona then it will be much more difficult to achieve the results you want.

2. Take baby steps. A full on 20-minutes-3-times-per-week exercise regime is probably a bit much if exercise scares you. Be kind to your brain, after all you want it to take note of the changes you are planning. If the feeling of exercise scares you, start slowly. Do a little then stop. Remember, baby steps are better than no steps at all! If one minute is all you can achieve then revel in that achievement. Try for a little longer on day 2, etc., and revel in each of those little wins. Don’t pressure yourself with too many expectations, just build slowly and don’t worry if your progress seems to plateau, just be persistent, look for those small wins, and look for the enjoyment of achievement which will inevitably arrive if you persist.

3. Distract yourself from the uncomfortable sensations (at first). Anyone suffering from exercise anxiety should try and develop a tolerance for those disconcerting sensations. Distraction may help you get through a few exercise sessions and onto a better path. Try focusing on music, or a TV show, while exercising at home. If you pay attention to the plot line, the musical beat, or the lyrics instead of focusing on your body your exercise session will probably feel less scary and uncomfortable.

4. Expose yourself to the sensations of exercise (and panic) in other ways. If feeling hot or sweaty is a panic trigger for you, try hanging out in your bathroom for a little while after showering. Feel the warmth and allow yourself to sweat a little bit. Notice the sensations on your skin. Simply pay attention to the way your hands, legs, and body feel. The more often you become aware of and accept these sensations, the more you’ll desensitize yourself to their discomfort.

We hope these ideas might help you step beyond the fear of exercise and enjoy a healthier lifestyle and all the benefits that brings. Just remember, if you have any health issues, to check with your GP before starting any exercise program.