Most of us know that physical activity is important for our physical health and is increasingly recommended for our mental health. Exercise, as defined in scientific literature, is a form of physical activity that is intentional, and done in leisure time for the purposes of either recreation or health. Examples of exercise could be playing a sport, jogging, or going to the gym. The broader umbrella term of physical activity refers to both intentional exercise and any other incidental movement we do, for example: walking or cycling for transport, moving boxes in the workplace, or even cleaning your home. While all physical activity benefits our physical health, preliminary evidence suggests that leisure time exercise is particularly beneficial for our mental health. Yet, exercise is a habit that can feel impossible to stick to when we’re experiencing low mood or anxiety.

So why do we struggle to exercise when we feel down or anxious?

Much of the struggle to start or continue an exercise program when we feel down or anxious comes from the way we experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. When it comes to anxiety, humans often have a fear-avoidance response, where a worry can turn into fear, leading to repeatedly avoiding a task. Typically, in a fear-avoidance response, each time a task is avoided, the worries and fears will grow stronger, making it harder and harder to do the task we’re avoiding. Worries about exercise can sound like: “I’ll do it wrong and get injured”, or “everyone will be looking at me and I’m going to embarrass myself”. For someone experiencing anxiety, these types of worries can turn into fear, and can mean avoiding exercise entirely – beginning the negative cycle of fear-avoidance with exercise.

Additionally, for some, exercise can trigger similar physical sensations that come along with anxiety – such as palpitations, sweating, and being out of breath. These physical sensations can serve as an unpleasant reminder of feeling anxious, fearful, or even panicked. As a result, some people choose to avoid exercise to avoid the physical sensations that come along with it which remind them of their anxiety.

Often co-existing with anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms also have a complex relationship with exercise. Common symptoms of depression include loss of motivation, loss of energy and lowered ability to feel pleasure. It’s not uncommon for adults who experience depressive symptoms to have difficulty getting out of bed during the day to do tasks (i.e. showering, or housework) due to low energy and low motivation. This can make it feel impossible to even think about doing any additional leisure-time physical activity. Low self-confidence is common in both anxiety and depression and can also affect motivation to exercise. Low self-confidence in exercise can manifest in different ways, such as a fear of failure with achieving exercise goals, or concerns about body image while exercising. In some, these fears or concerns may trigger a fear-avoidance response, whilst for others, the response may be more apathetic toward exercise. Either way, building your self-confidence could be key to addressing some of the mental health-related barriers to exercise.

How can we address these barriers to exercise?

If you live in Australia, and have a diagnosed chronic health issue, you may be eligible for a Chronic Disease Management (CDM) plan. A CDM plan can be created by your GP, and if eligible, provide you with subsidised appointments from Medicare. Allied health professionals, particularly accredited exercise physiologists, can be a great support when you’re struggling with self-confidence and motivation to exercise. Exercise physiologists are experts in adapting exercises and movements in different ways to suit a person’s needs and preferences. For more information on CDM plans, click here.

Starting low and slow is a great way to make sustained changes. When we focus on small, easy to achieve, short-term goals first, we can gain progress and momentum that can lead into succeeding in our long-term goals. For example, if a longer-term goal is to walk for an hour every day but you’re currently not doing any intentional exercise, an easier short-term goal might be to walk for 10 minutes once or twice a week. The next week, your short-term goal could be to walk for 15-20 minutes, building up every week in the frequency and/or duration. Remember to celebrate these short-term wins along the way, even a 5 minute walk is an improvement from before you started!

Prioritising your enjoyment is another key way to make exercise sustainable. Always try to choose activities that you enjoy. If you hate running, you might struggle to stick to a goal of running three times a week – but maybe you like to walk, or dance, or do team sports. There are so many different ways to get moving, and the best exercise program is the one that you can stick to consistently.

Using green and blue spaces can also be a great way to enjoy your exercise more and provide added boosts to your mental and physical health. Exercising in green and blue spaces could include going for a walk by the beach, walking in your local park, or even gardening in your backyard. Blue and green spaces have been found to lower anxiety and enhance both mood and the enjoyment of exercise.

Another way to enjoy your movement more is listening to music during exercise. This has been found to make exercise feel more enjoyable for adults across a range of exercise types and sports. Interestingly, perceived exertion during exercise tends to be lower when you listen to music during exercise, meaning that it might make exercise feel easier!

Can exercise improve your mental health?

Recent reviews suggest that exercise is an effective treatment both in adults with clinical depression and clinical anxiety, and in adults with subclinical levels of depression or anxiety. Some specific benefits described by people who do exercise for their mental health include reduced stress, improved mood (both in the short and longer term), feelings of accomplishment, and improved body image.

Overall, it’s important to remember that as much as it’s difficult to get started or keep going with exercise when you feel down or anxious, often you’ll feel better once you’ve started.

Dr Madeleine Connolly completed her PhD at The University of Melbourne examining the topic of barriers and benefits to exercise for people experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Madi is currently working at the Food & Mood Centre as an Associate Research Fellow on the HARMON-E Trial.