Managing Anxiety with Exercise Transcript
Host: Hello and welcome to the Well Wisconsin radio podcast. We are going to be talking about managing anxiety with exercise and active living. I’m your host today, Kristi Mulcahey. I am joined by two guests today, Logan Edwards, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Human Health, Jen Kaina, Assistant Director for Fitness and Aquatics in Recreation Sports and Facilities at UW Whitewater.
Dr. Edwards’ specialty is teaching and integrating mental wellness education into traditional health education. He has also taught courses in personal health, health behavior and equity, stress management, and health behavior theory, research, and practice. Dr. Edwards received his Ph. D. in health behavior with special concentrations in mental health and well-being and curriculum and instruction and both master’s and bachelor’s degrees in health education from Indiana University’s School of Public Health Bloomington.
Jen is an ACE certified personal trainer, health coach, and group fitness instructor. She has worked at UW Whitewater in her current role as assistant director for fitness and aquatics in the Office of Recreation Sports and Facilities, as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Kinesiology for the last 20 years.
Jen received her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University in Exercise Science with a double minor in Corporate Fitness and Cardiac Rehab and a master’s degree from Central Michigan University in Recreation and Parks Administration. As a health professional, Jen inspires individuals to take an active role in their own overall well-being journey by finding small day to day changes that will have a big long-term impact. She believes that everyone’s how and why are different, and each fitness and well-being story is as unique as the individual. So, I want to thank you both for joining us today and welcome you to the Well Wisconsin Podcast. We’re going to go ahead and start out with Logan.
We’ve got a question for you to start. For our listeners working to improve mental health and reduce anxiety, how can we experience benefits through exercise?
Guest 1: Yes. Thank you, Kristi. And thank you for that introduction. My first answer to that is that it is helpful to get out of your head and into your body. When it comes to any type of worry, stress or anxiety, that’s something that I tell myself when I’m going through mental overload or feeling overwhelmed with worry, stress or anxiety, I remind myself I got to get out of my head and I got to get into my body and physical activity and exercise provides a healthy outlet for coping with stress, managing any type of anxiousness or anxiety that you’re experiencing.
And the more time that we spend attending to our body, okay, the less time we’ll spend focusing on what’s worrying us in our mind. So those are my first thoughts. Second thoughts would be that exercise can be a form of exposure therapy, and what I mean by that is that when you’re moving your body, when you’re exercising, especially it’s going to induce some of the same physical sensations as fear or anxiety itself that people experience when they’re afraid or they’re anxious. So, your increased heart rate, your increased breathing rate, increased perspiration and sweating, all those things are physiologically happening oftentimes when you’re afraid or you’re anxious.
So, exercise is going to kind of simulate that same physiological response, and it’s a form of exposure therapy because you can use exercise then as conditioning the mind and the body to endure those same physiologic sensations in a safe and harmless setting, though, even if you’re just doing it for 10 to 15 minutes or 20 to 30 minutes.
And for some folks, maybe even as little as just five minutes to kind of get that feeling and then practice conditioning your mind and your body to work through it. You’re essentially teaching your body and teaching your mind that I can manage this. I can learn to work through this.
I can function through these feelings. I can withstand these feelings. Um, and then learn over time how to strengthen my ability to persist and then resist some of those negative effects of anxiety, making you more resilient the more that you practice it.
Host: Wow, I really like that. I’ve never thought about it that way. So that’s, really helpful to think about that. And Jen, um, can you tell us about some of like the additional health benefits associated with exercise?
Guest 2: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to share the stage with Logan. Um, so I got two things for you. The first one is on the research side, individuals tend to be happier and have a more positive outlook, very similar to what Logan was saying. It is a stress response, and so your body tends to adapt, and so things become less hard, less challenging, and then they tend to gravitate towards wanting to get to that positive outlook and outcome towards the end of the proverbial workout, if you will.
Other things are increased energy, healthier body weight and mobility, stronger bones and overall functionality. And then my favorite is you sleep better, which then leads to better recovery. And then, which then will loop you back around to a more positive outlook throughout the day. And then if we look at the medical side of things, we have improve brain and health and memory, reduced risk of heart disease, chronic disease and joint pain. And then of course, that overall lowers blood pressure.
Host: Yeah, that’s great. I love that. And really pointing out sleep is very helpful. I think we forget about that so often and not really prioritizing that. So, knowing that our exercise helps us with sleep is extremely important because we all, I think overall a lot of us are not getting the sleep we need. So, Logan are there certain types of exercise that may be more helpful in managing anxiety?
Guest 1: Yeah, exercise is the wonder drug. You know, that’s what you guys were reminding me of it is the wonder drug it’s healthy for mind body and community.
So when it comes to types that are helpful in managing anxiety, I really would say all types, all intensities and all durations can reduce anxiety symptoms and soothe or relieve, anxious thoughts, ease mental and emotional pain that you might be experiencing. And when I say all types, I’m generally referring to three major types.
There’s cardiorespiratory training. So, if you think about aerobic activities, um, anything that’s really going to get your breathing rate and your heart rate up. So, a lot of aerobic activities, running, jogging, swimming, biking, et cetera. Resistance, exercise training or strength, weight bearing activities. So, going into a gym and actually lifting weights. And then also stretching or flexibility activities. So, when you think about yoga or Pilates, Tai Chi, martial arts, things of that nature, cardiorespiratory resistance exercise or weight bearing exercise and then stretching flexibility activities are all going to help relieve some of those anxious or anxiety like symptoms.
When I say intensities, I’m speaking about light intensity or easy effort, moderate intensity or vigorous intensity or hard effort activities. All of those are also going to relieve something when it comes to stress, worry, anxiety, like symptoms, all of it’s going to help. It just kind of depends on where you’re at in your own exercise routine and journey.
And then for durations, as little as 15 to 30 minutes, as much as two hours at a time, all of that is going to help relieve anxiety symptoms. So, typically the more intense, the longer the duration, the better relief of all of these symptoms. And the more anxiety that you have, you have the most benefits to be experienced by moving your body in these ways.
So, the more the better, but it could be as little as 15 to 20 minutes at light intensity just doing something that’s cardio, something lightweight, something stretching is all going to help.
Host: That’s good to know. Yeah. I think that helps our listeners a lot, just we’re all at different places in our exercise journeys. So, I think that really helps them to understand that wherever you’re at, you can start and kind of work from there, which is great. Yeah, I know there are the mental health benefits. There are mental health benefits associated with exercise, short-term benefits similar to the positive boost that you hear about from a runner’s high after going for a jog. Do we experience improvements that are long-term, or just kind of is it a short-term fix for us when we do exercise?
Guest 1: Right? I’d say the answer is both. Honestly, I think the short-term and the long-term are working together for relief over time. So, consistency is key. Um, if you have a short-term goal to relieve my stress and anxiety today, you’re going to do that through again, getting out of your mind and into your body in just 15, 20 minutes. But if you keep increasing that time, if you stay consistent with that day in, day out, week in, week out, then you’re going to have these longer-term benefits where you’re less likely to become anxious or stressed out so quickly.
And then when you do have anxious thoughts or symptoms or you are stressed out, you’re going to be able to manage those a lot quicker and be more resilient in the face of them in the future. So, the short-term you’re going to get right away, but the more consistent you stay, you’re going to get the long-term benefits, months and years out.
So, consistency is key. Again, a paced approach, build in more minutes incrementally over time. Again, short-term to long-term working together. Um, and then be patient, be patient, I’m sorry, there, there’s no quick fix here, it’s going to take weeks, months, even years to reap the really long-term benefits, but it is worth the wait, it’s worth the time it takes, and it’s worth the effort for your mental well-being and your overall quality of life in the long run.
Host: Jen, in addition to the mental health benefits, can exercise help us live longer, healthier lives? I know you kind of talked about this a little bit earlier, but maybe elaborate a little bit more on that.
Guest 2: Yes. For the most part, absolutely. Exercise certainly contributes to a healthier lifestyle and longevity. However, exercise is not the only predictor for living longer. We need to consider our other risk factors, like family history, medical history, do you smoke. And what our daily nutrition is and how it contributes to our overall lifespan.
Host: Great. Yeah, I really appreciate that. And also, just kind of going off of that, I know it’s important to focus on choosing activities that we enjoy. So, what advice do you have for someone who hasn’t found a lot of joy in exercise, but they’re ready to try some new activities?
Guest 2: Oh, I have several things. Number one, I think first and foremost, we need to remember to give ourselves grace. We often forget about that. This is a long-term process in that it is not something that will happen in the next hour, in the next five minutes, overnight, you know, in fitness, in health, nutrition, et cetera we always talk about this magic pill, right? It does not exist because if it did, we all would be taking it. It is actually a process. So, giving yourself grace along the way is one of those necessary ingredients. I would also say to shift your perspective because exercise looks different for everyone.
And one of my favorite quotes that I always use is, if you talk to your friends the way you talk to yourself, you wouldn’t have any friends. And I think that’s true for all of us at some point. Because we see people who are perceivably very fit, but yet other things might not be so fit on the inside.
But what we see looks like they are the full package, and that’s not necessarily true because that package has taken a long time to put together. I also think that we need to silence the madness. I think, and that’s part of, you know, having that good positive self-talk and being true to yourself throughout this discovery process and listen to the things that are not being said. When I work with clients, I hear their words and I hear what they’re saying, but then I also think, hmm, what aren’t you telling me? What is that space in between the lines that I need to pay attention that you’re not addressing? Are you hiding it? Are you trying to subdue it? You know, what is that the thing that you’re most scared of?
And that’s really what we need to be addressing. Um, but again, that’s the process in the shifting that happens. I would also say, find a space that speaks to you. Do you feel more comfortable indoors, outdoors, or on the water, maybe paddle boarding? Surround yourself by people who empower you. I always use the term safety in numbers.
Find a friend and bring them along for the ride. It’s always more fun. You can be goofballs together. You can experience new things together because you feel a lot safer when someone is there with you versus flying solo. Then I would also say, what are your short-term goals? What are some of the things that you want to accomplish in the next three months?
That’s a short enough period of time. It’s 120 days that you can look at, um, maybe 120 days, 90 to 120 days is generally what we look at. What do you want to accomplish? Where are you at? Where do you want to go? Is it measurable? Is it attainable? Is it realistic? And we know time bound within 90 to 120 days, what are those low hanging fruit items?
And then the last thing is, what are those spaces that are available in your community? What things are free to no charge that you can experience to just kind of dabble and you know, dip your toe in the water? Just see if you like it for a second. And I think there’s some things that may surprise people that they may have fought against their entire life and now for X, Y, Z reason, they need to. They need to kind of let that go and experience new things and you never know, you might like it.
Host: Yeah. I really, yeah, that’s a lot of great advice on getting started and really helping people because I think that’s part of the challenge a lot of times is where do I start or, oh, it costs a lot of money to do these things and really, you know, there’s so many different things out there.
Well, kind of along, you know, you talked about some different options and things like that. Logan is we look for like activities that we enjoy and aim to improve our mental health with exercise. Are there other factors that we should consider, as far as like being active outdoors, does that really make a difference too?
Guest 1: Yeah, absolutely. Um, being active outdoors is the best of both worlds. I would say you’re getting the benefits from physical activity and exercise that Jen and I have been talking about, but then also time in nature or exposure to nature provides natural sunlight, fresh air, it helps your body produce more serotonin, which is going to help you feel good throughout the day. Just sunlight exposure alone does that. And then serotonin is actually a precursor to melatonin, which is going to help us sleep better at night. So just being outside alone is going to help your body create the hormones needed to feel good throughout the day to get to sleep easier and for longer at night, and creates this virtuous cycle for you that leads to better mental health and less anxiety over time. So yeah, being active outdoors is the best of both worlds.
And then I would also say that the social support factor like Jen was just speaking to is going to help provide positive relationship building opportunities for you.
If you’re being active and exercising with other people, um, it’s going to help provide accountability for you. Encouragement, support, role modeling, social bonding and connection. All of those things, in my opinion, the social connection piece is just as important for health and well-being as exercise, as diet, as good sleep.
So yeah, absolutely. If you can do it with other people and you can do it outside, those are really bringing in multiple health behaviors that are attached to multiple health outcomes into your life.
Host: We always do better with accountability too, right? So, if we’re in that group setting. So, Logan, what advice do you have for someone who’s just getting started with adding some exercise to their, their routine? And perhaps the idea of being physically active could even trigger some of their anxiety, so what approach do you recommend for building this new practice? Because we certainly don’t want to have them get triggered by starting the exercise.
Guest 1: Absolutely. So, there’s a handful of things, but you know pacing yourself I’ll repeat again. Just start as little as is what’s possible or endurable for you. So, if it’s if it’s just five minutes, that’s okay. Do five minutes and see what that threshold is for triggering anxiety. If it’s at five minutes, then stop at five minutes and relax and be proud of yourself that you are putting in the effort to do five minutes.
Maybe in a couple of days you can do 10 minutes. Maybe next week you can do 10 or 15 minutes and just pace yourself and incrementally build from there and keep it. Strengthening your body and mind’s ability to withstand some of those feelings of increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, sweating, you will build resilience to those effects over time, even if it’s just starting with five minutes and working your way all the way up to two hours, maybe weeks and months and years out. So again, that be patient and then that being kind to yourself, as Jen was saying, is incredibly important. We really want you to have a sense of pride in the fact that you’re just thinking about doing it.
And then there is more pride and being proud of yourself by attempting to do it and there is no failure or success here. You tried and that success and then you’re going to be proud of yourself for continuing to stay consistent with that process. However long it takes you, there’s no judgment, there’s just kindness for yourself and giving yourself grace.
As Jen was saying, you know, just putting effort in making an effort, I think, is the success and what there is to be proud of. So again, I just think that reminding yourself that I have got to get out of my head and into my body. It doesn’t have to be quote unquote exercise again. What Jen was saying, I would like to reinforce that it looks different for everybody, it’s looked at as movement. You can just move your body more. Just stand up, walk around, get some more steps in. That’s going to help in little ways. Then there’s just physical activity. It doesn’t necessarily need to go into exercise. If you’re just doing light and moderate intensity things that can just be you being physically active, which is still getting out of your mind and into your body.
And then there’s exercise, which you’re going to get the biggest payoff from in terms of relieving anxiety and benefiting mental health. But you don’t have to start with exercise again. That paced approach. Okay. incremental steps and hitting small goals along the way for their short-term successes to build up into weeks and months and years long, long-term successes and benefits.
Host: Absolutely. I love that. Um, Jen, once we have discovered ways that we enjoy being active, what tips do you have for establishing a habit of being physically active on a regular basis?
Guest 2: Number one, routine is key. Pencil in movement into your daily schedule. And notice I didn’t say workouts. I said movement, because again, exercise looks different to everyone, whether it is going for a walk.
Purposeful time in the gym, moving some weight around. Um, it can also be those quiet moments of meditation, yoga, working on different parts of your body. All of that needs to be routine, whatever that is and it could be 15 minutes to an hour to two hours, whatever you have time in your schedule, just make it routine.
And I think magical things happen when you’ve made a commitment and you have the consistency. Then you need to figure out if you are a paper and pencil person or an electronic person, and this will help you find the space to make it routine and keep yourself accountable. I think we spend a lot of time trying to decipher things, making decisions when we are looking at stuff.
There are so many choices, right? There are so many choices on how to get organized. There are so many choices on how to choose your movement. Um, but what works for you? Do you like to check a box? Do you like to strike it out on a line? Are you wanting to use your phone so that you can just hit delete and poof, it disappears, you know, because I’ve accomplished this.
What works for you? Is it an app telling you what to do? Do you want to design your own workout? Do you not know how to do that? We need to find people to help you do that. You know, everyone is different. And then I think a really passionate thing is to journal your fitness story.
Where are you at and where do you want to go? And I think sometimes, when we talk about self-reflection, sometimes we don’t see where we’re at because the road is long and we forget where we came from. We forget where we started. And so when we start journaling our story, whether it be numbers, or time, you know, how much time we spent able to move, or you’re journaling about the first yoga class you ever took and you’re like, oh my gosh, there’s no way I can shut my mouth for 60 minutes.
And then now you’re like, I think I can do a 90-minute hot yoga class. You know, that is a very large shift that you need to recognize and celebrate, um, because you were able to tap into different parts of your body and get really excited about something that you didn’t think you could ever do. We need to be our own cheerleaders.
And I think part of that is putting, you know, a journal together, whether it’s electronic or paper or pencil, whatever works for you is figure out how you want to create routine, how you want to schedule the time and then have self-reflection related to that time.
Host: That’s great. Yeah, I love the journaling. I love to see progress and it really helps motivate you to see where you’ve come from, you know, where you started and where you are getting to. That’s awesome.
Guest 2: Well, we also hold ourselves accountable during that time, whether, you know, it’s, it’s quiet time, it’s reflection. Digging a little bit deeper, finding new challenges that maybe you thought you could never embrace that you now find through your journaling, you know, again, it looks different for everyone, but it’s having an opportunity to be quiet. We don’t get that enough.
Host: Exactly. Yes. I appreciate that. Okay. Um, Jen, life is full of challenges that are also going to creep up on us and prevent us from staying with our new routines. What recommendations do you have for overcoming obstacles and staying on course? I know you kind of hit a little bit of that in your last answer, but do you have any other things to add on to that, for like anything to, you know, overcoming some of those obstacles?
Guest 2: A big piece is giving yourself permission to be human, right? Life happens, things happen. In the whole-transtheoretical model for behavior change, it is actually a looping method, right? We go from pre-contemplation stage to maintenance stage in three to six months, but what happens after six months? Life, life happens after six months and things become barriers that weren’t necessarily barriers before. And we have to, you know, jump, dive, dip and swerve to be able to adapt, to be able to maintain.
The consistency that we’ve worked hard in our routine schedules, right? So understanding that you are human and to give yourself some grace, um, number two, depending on your personal situation, whether it’s accessibility or finances, having that accountability partner is really important from health coach, personal trainer, medical professional, or even a therapist or counselor can help you, keep you going. Throughout those moments where, you just want to be like, nope, I’m done. I need a moment. But you need someone, you know, poking the bear a little bit to say, yes, you can have a little break, but these things are also really important. And once, if you take that break for too long, now that becomes your routine and it’s going to be harder to get back into your purposeful movement routine.
Host: Definitely. So, Jen, as we age, our bodies change and may not quite be the same as they were in the past. So, what should we do to stay active through our life cycle?
Guest 2: So funny that we’re talking about that. So, a big thing that we preach in personal training is, when we meet a new client is what are your current activities of daily living, what do you need to do in order to live your life? You know, whether that’s through work, through being a parent, through being a sibling, you know, what are those activities of daily living? And so that’s your minimum threshold, right? And then we start working on where do you want to go?
And with that becomes a plan for mobility and stability training, where are you at, where do you want to go and how functional do you want and need to be? Then listen to your body. Rest and recovery are really huge parts of building a strong base of support—i.e. sleep. Sleep is, you know, a huge thing for our body to quiet the mind, quiet the soul.
Flip the cells, feed our body good things, hydration, things along those lines. And with this question, I always come back to the blue zones. It’s a very powerful theory that we can see in different cultures actually make sense. So, if you haven’t read the book or done the research on blue zones about eating wisely and moving naturally, it’s actually mind blowing because it’s like, oh yeah, you have that aha moment of yep, that totally makes sense. And when some of these cultures are living well past 100, their activities of daily living include eating naturally, moving wisely, just to be able to survive in their culture. So, it really makes sense.
Host: Well, I really appreciate all of your great advice Logan and Jen. I do want to remind our, listeners that if you do have a goal to better manage anxiety or to be more active when it comes to making changes, we can all use some help.
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Explore this episode on Managing Anxiety with Exercise and Active Living, where you can discover mental health benefits associated with exercise and activities to reduce anxiety. In this episode, we are joined by two experts from UW-Whitewater—Logan Edwards, PhD., Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Jen Kaina, Assistant Director for Fitness and Aquatics, who share tips for starting an exercise routine, building healthy habits and staying active at every age.
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