Fitness Tips

Stressed and Anxious That You’re Not Exercising? Science Says You’re Not Alone

Dominique Michelle Astorino

Photo: Stocksy/Dimitrije Tanaskovic
So, you're trying to reduce stress and anxiety by exercising... but you’re so stressed and anxious that you can’t find the strength to exercise. You’re not alone.

There’s an epidemic of sorts, concurrent with the global pandemic. The exercise paradox of stress is backed by an April 2021 study, published by the peer-reviewed open access scientific journal PLOS One, that found mental health was "both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic."

This study looked at 1,600 people to figure out “how and why mental health, physical activity, and sedentary behavior have changed throughout the course of the pandemic.” What they found was potentially not so surprising: "Even though exercise comes with the promise of reducing anxiety, many respondents felt too anxious to exercise. Likewise, although exercise reduces depression, respondents who were more depressed were less motivated to get active, and lack of motivation is a symptom of depression," said Jennifer Heisz, PhD, lead author of the study and a member of the faculty in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University.

The increase in stress levels and uptick in anxiety and depression symptoms was correlated with a decrease in exercise minutes. In a cruel, vicious cycle, this decrease in physical activity made the stress and mental health symptoms worse, keeping many of us feeling … well, trapped.

Reframe your exercising mentality to reduce stress and anxiety

There are a few ways you can try to dig yourself out of the hole, and while it’s not easy, it will certainly be worth it (from a number of standpoints). The study itself suggested a few options, including:

  • Reminding yourself that some exercise is better than none (if all you have is five minutes, use it!)
  • Cutting back on intensity (try going for a walk instead of your usual bootcamp)
  • Move a little each day—dance around to some good music
  • Stand and move in between extended periods of sitting or laying down
  • Book movement time like you used to book studio time; block it off in your calendar

In addition to the study's findings, co-founder of Lift Studio LDN and certified personal trainer Danni Tabor has her own bits of wisdom. Tabor herself has worked through personal struggles and emotional hardships. She starts with a reframing and mindset shift.

“We think that adding in exercises will drain us of our energy and create a more stressful, busy mind,” says Tabor. “In reality, for me, the more I prioritize exercise—even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, the more I feel alive, less tense. It creates a sense of space in my head and buzz in my body.”

Instead of thinking about your workout as draining or exhausting, consider it like a physical cup of coffee. An energy booster! “I never regret a workout because it always makes me feel alive, accomplished … even calmer,” she says.

Consider your intensity. Tabor also recommends a reframing when it comes to the intensity of your workout. “We must remember: walking is exercise. It does not have to be CrossFit,” she says. High intensity workouts can feel intimidating, even stressful, she explains. "Remembering that exercise is not [only] about burning calories and feeling pain.” She recommends choosing a style of exercise that will take away from your stress, even if that’s simply a walk in the park or some gentle yoga for a few minutes.

Here's a 20-minute yoga flow designed for stress relief:

Remember that a workout is a workout. Five minutes is better than no minutes. In addition to these exercise-specific tips, it’s also incredibly important to focus on your mental health first—healing the foundation, if you will. Get yourself a therapist, talk to your doctor about your symptoms, improve your sleep quality, take technology breaks… do whatever you can to get your brain in a good spot. Not only will this help you feel better (and be healthier!), but it’ll help you get back on track with your exercise routine, too.

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