The links between anxiety, depression and high-intensity cardio aren't entirely clear — but it can definitely help you relax and make you feel better. High-intensity cardio may also help keep anxiety and depression from coming back once you're feeling better.
High-intensity cardio probably helps ease anxiety and depression in a number of ways, for example:
- Doing something positive to manage depression and anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping depression and anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.
- Meeting high-intensity cardio goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
- High-intensity cardio may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you jog around your neighborhood can help your mood.
- High-intensity cardio increases body temperature, which may have calming effects.
- High-intensity cardio reduces immune system chemicals that can worsen depression.
- High-intensity cardio releases feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters and endorphins).
- High-intensity cardio helps you to take your mind off worries. It is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
The term "high-intensity cardio" may make you think of running laps around the gym. But this form of exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better. Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can less intense forms of cardio, such as gardening, washing your car, or walking around the block. Anything that gets you off the couch and moving is exercise that can help improve your mood.
You don't have to do all your cardio at once either. Broaden how you think of cardio and find ways to fit activity into your routine. Add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day (e.g., take the stairs instead of the elevator, park a little farther away from your work to fit in a short walk, consider biking to work, etc.).
Doing just 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio a day for three days a week can significantly improve depression and anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of activity — as little as 10 minutes at a time — can make a difference too. However, bear in mind that it will take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more vigorous forms of exercise, such as running or bicycling.
Starting and sticking with a high-intensity cardio routine can be a challenge. Below are some steps that can help. Check with your doctor before starting a new cardio program to make sure it's safe for you.
- Figure out what's stopping you from exercising. If you feel self-conscious, for example, you may want to do your workouts at home. If you stick to goals better with a partner, find a friend to work out with. If you don't have money to spend on expensive cardio equipment (e.g., a treadmill), do something that's virtually cost-free, such as walking. If you think about what's stopping you from exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
- If cardio exercise is just another "should" in your life that you don't think you're living up to, you'll associate it with failure. Instead, look at your cardio schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
- Talk to your doctor or other mental health provider for guidance and support. Discuss concerns about a cardio program and how it fits into your overall treatment plan.
- Figure out what type of physical activities you're most likely to do, and think about when and how you'd be most likely to follow through. For example, would you be more likely to do some gardening in the evening or go for a jog in the pre-dawn hours? Go for a bike ride or play basketball with your kids after school? Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
- Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip a cardio workout one day, that doesn't mean you should just quite because you can't maintain your cardio routine. Just try again the next day.
- Your mission doesn't have to be jogging for an hour five days a week. Think realistically about what you may be able to do. Tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that you're unlikely to meet.
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