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Exercise Mindfully for Maximum Anxiety-Reducing Power

Exercise and mindfulness are both widely accepted and research-supported ways to reduce anxiety. Combined, their anti-anxiety power skyrockets. When you exercise mindfully, anxiety takes a big hit. Read on to learn why and how to do it. 

How Exercise and Mindfulness Each Help Anxiety

Exercise is great for the entire mind and body system--the bodymind. Moving your body brings many mental health benefits. To name just a few, it can help relieve tension, releases feel-good hormones like adrenaline and epinephrine into your system, increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain, and boosts energy.1 Exercise can be an outlet for pent-up worries and frustrations, too. Exercise, in any form that you enjoy (forcing yourself to do something you loathe doesn't bring as many mental health benefits and can even increase anxiety), can be a powerful tool for reducing anxiety and keeping it away. 

Likewise, mindfulness is another research-backed approach to reducing anxiety and living with a sense of calm and inner peace.2 Mindfulness is a way of living life that involves paying full attention to the present moment with openness and acceptance rather than judgment. With mindfulness, you notice yourself living in your mind, caught up, for example, in worries about the past or fears about the future. Once you're aware of where your thoughts, feelings, and attention are, you can redirect your concentration on the present moment, whatever that moment may bring.

Living mindfully doesn't erase difficulties or take away things that cause anxiety, but in pulling you out of your mind and into your present moment, it allows you to deal with situations as they are. It also helps you choose what you focus on. There's so much happening in every single moment that you have lots to choose from. With mindfulness, you can pay attention on purpose to the positive things around you moment by moment, which reduces your body's stress reaction so you can respond thoughtfully to problems rather than reacting emotionally. 

This is also true for exercise. On the surface, exercise might seem like it offers little to reducing anxiety. While it doesn't directly address anxiety-provoking situations, it makes changes inside your whole system, so you feel and function the way you want to. 

Exercise and mindfulness put you, not anxiety, in charge. They each work well on their own. Pair them, and you become even stronger than your anxiety. 

What Is Mindful Exercise, and How to Do It

Mindful exercise is engaging in some sort of activity involving movement and paying attention to what you are doing. When you exercise mindfully, you engage in your chosen activity fully and completely, without distractions. 

When you exercise mindfully, you don't:

  • Watch the news, TV, or a movie while on a treadmill or other equipment
  • Talk on the phone
  • Scroll through smartphone apps
  • Post pictures on or otherwise engage in social media
  • Work on building your to-do list in your head
  • Become stuck in thoughts, worries, and worst-case scenarios
  • Replay conversations and interactions in your mind
  • Plan what you are going to do next

This is admittedly much more difficult than it sounds. Without other distractions, the human mind wanders--often into anxiety's territory. Further, exercise, for many, has become less of an activity to do for enjoyment and more of a chore and an opportunity to multitask. Why not make good use of your time exercising by solving problems in your head? Here's the reason why not: You reap fewer benefits and even increase anxiety by thinking about it. 

To exercise mindfully, view your time exercising as distinct moments in your life. You have devoted time to moving your body for your wellbeing. Allow yourself to experience and enjoy it completely. 

  • Pay attention to how your body feels while exercising. Notice your heart rate, breathing, muscles, and joints moving. Remain neutral and nonjudgmental. Simply notice.
  • Look around you. Take in the natural beauty of your surroundings if you're exercising outdoors. If you're inside, concentrate on different sights in the room.
  • Listen to sounds around you. Inside our outdoors, what do you hear? Allow your attention to tune in. 
  • Add music, but do so mindfully. Especially when exercising indoors, music can keep you energized. Integrate it into your mindful workout by concentrating on the music itself and moving your body to its rhythm. 
  • When you catch your thoughts wandering and anxiety taking over (it will), simply name it (you might just say, "Worrying,") and then return your attention to your moment.

Mindful exercise doesn't require any special training or equipment. It simply takes patience, practice, and a willingness to turn your attention again and again to the act of exercising in this moment. When you do, you put your thoughts, emotions, and attention on the same team as your body. In this harmony, you enhance your brain, nervous system, and full mind and body together, so you can be present in your moment. When you exercise, you empower your system to operate with the fight-or-flight response turned off. When you do it mindfully, you are present in your moment rather than attending to anxiety. This is a powerful, doubled-up, anxiety-reducing way of living. 

I invite you to watch this video to learn a mindful walking exercise. 

Sources

  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), "Exercise for Stress and Anxiety." Accessed January 6, 2021. 
  2. Vollestad, J., et al., "Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Interventions for Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis." British Journal of Clinical Psychology, September 2011. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, April 29). Exercise Mindfully for Maximum Anxiety-Reducing Power, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, July 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2021/4/exercise-mindfully-for-maximum-anxiety-reducing-power



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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