The best exercises to ease anxiety

Catriona Harvey-Jenner
·4-min read
Photo credit: Patrik Giardino - Getty Images
Photo credit: Patrik Giardino - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

There's no miracle cure for anxiety. Depending on the individual, it can take counselling, medication or lifestyle changes (or a combination of all three) to help someone move through a period of intense anxiety.

Right now, whether you have a history of mental health issues or not, almost everyone is feeling it. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing into another year, health anxiety is at a high, and all the unknowns are proving a strain on many people. But we do have one weapon on our side to fight against it: exercise.

One of the most common lifestyle changes people tend to make when suffering anxious thoughts is taking up exercise. No matter how big or small, exercise can get you out of the house (or at least away from your restless mind) and promotes the release of endorphins in your body which make you feel good (endorphins can "act as natural painkillers," says Dr Mark Winwood, a director of psychological services).


But, did you know there are certain exercises that can be more beneficial for helping anxiety than others? Richie Norton, former rugby player and founder of wellbeing brand The Strength Temple, has suffered with depression and anxiety himself, and knows first-hand just how much exercise can act like a therapy during difficult times. He talked Cosmopolitan UK through the physical activities he believes are most beneficial for people with anxiety.

1. Yoga

This one might not come as a surprise, considering the ancient practice of yoga - famous for bringing together the body and the mind - has been scientifically proven to have the potential to ease the symptoms of stress and anxiety. But with so many types of yoga, Richie recommends deciphering which type works best for you and your body when you’re feeling anxious. "While there are many different types of yoga, the two that are best known for helping with anxiety are either Restorative or Vinyasa," says Richie, who's also a yoga teacher himself.

"Practicing a slow, calming, breath-focused practice like Restorative Yoga (sometimes offered as Gentle Yoga or Yin Yoga) could really help to relax you when you’re finding it hard to cope. The key benefit with this form of yoga is providing physical and mental balance in the body, which helps to prevent stress and anxiety.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

"A gentle flow practice like Vinyasa Yoga (which can sometimes be referred to as Hatha Yoga), also focuses on the breath, which can help to relieve the feelings of anxiety too," adds Richie.

The biggest benefit of yoga when it comes to anxiety is the distraction technique it offers. "When you are thinking about the breath, your mind is less likely to wander off," the expert points out. "Plus, the controlled count and slow exhalation has been shown to stimulate the calming parasympathetic response of the nervous system."

2. Calisthenics

"Calisthenics is a form of exercise that uses only the weight of your body and gravity as resistance," explains Richie - and it's been known to help reduce feelings of anxiety. "Animal-style movements can help to free you of your inhibitions while gently taking you out of your comfort zone and building your confidence. The key is to let your body go wherever it wants," he explains.

Plus, you only use your body for calisthenics, making it a completely free form of exercise that can be performed anywhere, at any time.

3. Walking in nature (or getting outside in the fresh air)

"If you suffer from anxiety, then being in public places can often feel completely overwhelming. But being outside in the fresh air helps to provide a mental clarity like no other," Richie says.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

"By removing yourself from a situation that brings on feelings of anxiety and getting outside to connect to mother nature, you can help to release tension," he explains, which feels particularly relevant when, for many, working environments are currently also living environments, and the stresses of each become tied up in one another.

"Go and find a green space – a local park if you live in a city or head into the countryside if you live in a more rural area and breathe in the fresh air. Help to calm your system and take some full, deep, balanced, slow breaths, in and out of your nose. Maybe try to inhale through the nose and out of the mouth, then work up to breathing slowly in and out of the nose."

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