Can Exercise Really Ease Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression?
Here's what studies—and local testimonies—reveal.
Cancer Support Community Delaware offers fitness classes, like tai chi, to people currently undergoing treatment for cancer.//Photo by Maria DeForrest
When Kristen Miller leaves her exercise class, she is physically worn out, but mentally and emotionally invigorated.
“It really clears your mind,” says Miller, 58, a retired engineer from Wilmington with four children who takes part in the “Balanced Athlete” and yoga programs at Empowered Yoga in Greenville. Since she started exercising 10 years ago, Miller says she has become a new person. She feels happier, more centered and more compassionate to other people. Her exercise regimen includes focusing on her body and thoughts during physical activity.
“I come out of classes full of gratitude for my body, mind and spirit,” says Miller. “It grounds me. It’s really an amazing feeling.”
Many people can relate. There are plenty of stories of people taking a walk after a stressful day and feeling better afterward, but studies are showing there might be more to exercise than a temporary mood enhancer. Studies performed at Duke University found evidence that physical activity can also help ease long-term depression. In the study, subjects initially diagnosed with clinical depression, who reported regularly exercising over the course of year, had lower depression scores at their exit interviews than their counterparts who lived more sedentary lives. (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2010).
Activity and diet are constant therapy companions for Oya Alatur, a licensed clinical social worker who works with children at Delaware Guidance Services and adults at Serene Minds in Wilmington. She sees a lot of anxiety, depression and attention issues, she says. One of her first questions is: “How much do you get outside?”
“Across the board, more often than not, they are not eating so great or not eating regularly, and not moving around much,” says Alatur. “We’re not going to know what is really wrong unless we look into all areas.”
Along with traditional counseling therapies, Alatur prescribes exercise. She asks her patients to be realistic and honest in how much activity they are willing to commit to. But she can always tell the difference when her patients start exercising, she says.
The staff at the Cancer Support Community in Delaware sees it in their programs as well. The community is “dedicated exclusively to helping people cope with and manage the emotional aspect of cancer.” They serve clients in all stages of cancer as well as their families. Along with support groups and counseling, exercise is a big part of their programs.
Offerings include things like chair fitness, Zumba, strength training and even one called stiff men’s yoga. People who are able to continue exercising, even mildly, often find incredible benefits, says Jo Allegro-Smith, director of the Sussex County program.
“It absolutely makes you feel better,” says Allegro-Smith. Exercise releases endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones in the body, but it’s more than that. Many of the community clients suffer from depression, anxiety, stress and even a lowered self-image, she says. The exercise helps them reconnect with their bodies and build self-confidence, the feeling of, ‘I can do this,’” says Allegro-Smith.
“It’s never too late to start.”
The effects of exercise on the brain are good for everyday challenges and just general living as well. Becoming the stereotype of the cranky old man or woman doesn’t have to be a part of the aging process, for instance.
“We were not created to be sedentary—our bodies crave movement but it can get more difficult once we become sedentary for too long,” says Kathryn Cieniewicz, founder of Aging in Place Specialists in Lewes. “Our mood can be affected because we are just sitting around getting weaker.”
Aging in Place Specialists offers in-home physical therapy as well as evaluation and renovation of housing to allow people to stay in their homes longer as they age. “It’s never too late to start exercising,” says Cieniewicz.
She’s seen clients in their 90s come out of depressions once they start working on strength and flexibility. She also sees clients with anxiety appear more relaxed after their sessions.
“It’s like their bodies have dispensed all of that nervous energy and their mind is able to settle a bit,” she says.
Studies support Cieniewicz’s observations of anxiety and emotions and exercise. Correlations have even been made between exercise and helping children and adults with ADHD and ADD. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in 2015 reported that children with ADHD who exercised 31 minutes before school were able to reduce inattention and moodiness in school for the day.
Using that study, members of the University of Delaware Mind and Body Laboratory started exercise and mindfulness programs for preschoolers and professors.
In the mindfulness summer camp for children between the ages of 4 and 7, children participate in yoga and dance exercises as part of their regular activities. During the weeks of the camp the children show improvement in focus, compassion and the ability to identify and regulate emotions, according to the laboratory website.
“People tend to respond fairly quickly,” says Michael Mackenzie, director of the Applied Health Behavior Science Laboratory at the University of Delaware.
Regular exercise can actually make subtle changes in the brain physiology. Exercise causes an increase in the good neural transmitters in the brain as well as circulation to the brain. The healthier you are physically, often, the healthier you are cognitively, says Mackenzie. To test the theory, Mackenzie helped develop a mindfulness exercise program for members of the University of Delaware staff. The program, Mindful Employee and Occupational Wellness (MEOW) taught staff mini mindfulness exercises, like simple breathing, meditation and stretching that they could do almost anywhere.
The result? Staff members showed a significant decrease in stress and an increase in productivity after the six-week course. The staff members were so pleased with the results, they asked for more.
“More mindful, less stress, more work,” says Mackenzie.
A walk is often enough
Nancy Hawkins Rigg, owner of Forever Fit Foundation in Dover, Lewes and Mendenhall, Pa., finds that many highly successful people incorporate physical exercise as a regular part of their lives. “It’s not another job,” she says. “It gives them [mental] relief.”
A simple walk is often enough. The real definition of well-being is making the connection between your mind and what you are doing physically. “So many people think that if you’re not doing yoga, you’re not doing mind-body,” says Rigg.
Rigg’s client, Rebecca Woodzel, 41, of Dover says she’s living proof of how the mind benefits from physical exercise. A physical therapist and former college athlete, Woodzel exercised regularly until she hurt her back. She felt the recovery period as intensely mentally as she did physically.
“I become evil if I don’t exercise,” she jokes. Her routine some days is just stretching, some days it’s strength training, some days it’s playing field hockey. Exercise helps her mellow her emotions, she says. “Emotionally, I’m much more stressed, and not a happy person, if I don’t get to do my thing.”
Johnny Gillespie, founder of Empowered Yoga in Greenville, Newark and Glen Mills, Pa., has been working on the mind-body connection in his studios for more than 20 years. “If you look at any basic diagram of the body, you see the brain and the brain has branches—nerves. The nerve endings continually tell the brain what condition the body is in,” says Gillespie.
Johnny Gillespie, founder of Empowered Yoga in Greenville, Newark and Glen Mills, Pa., has been working on the mind-body connection in his studios for more than 20 years.//Photo by Brandon Aufiero
The first thing he always asks a new client to do when they arrive is to remove their shoes. By removing their shoes they are removing any artificial support. Gillespie then shows them how their feet are related to their cores and how their cores are related to all the other parts of the body.
Learning to pay attention to the body through physical activity helps keep the brain and body healthy. Gillespie recommends people pay attention to their movements, bodies and minds while exercising rather than watching TV or being distracted in other ways. Part of his exercise program focuses on concentration.
Focusing builds and strengthens the mind-body connection. Focusing while exercising is pretty simple once one gets used to it, says Gillespie.
1. Steady your eyes. (Your mind will start wandering if you look around.)
2. Learn to control your breathing (Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.)
3. Pay attention to sensations arising in your body (How are your hands related to your upper body and your feet to your core?)
“When you go to the gym, just focus,” he says. “It’s a great day to practice.”
Here are some quick guidelines to help build a better mind-body relationship at home.
“People tend to make better choices if they have time to reflect,” according to Dr. Michael Mackenzie, director of the Applied Health Behavior Science Laboratory at the University of Delaware. A quick way to help adults manage stress through exercise is for them to get SOBER.
S – Stop and do this exercise (You have choices in what you attend to).
O – Observe the sensations happening in your body (What are you feeling? How are you responding?)
B – Breathe and focus on your breathing (How are you breathing? Is it slow and deep or fast and shallow?
E – Expand your awareness to include the environment (What are you going to do with the information you are collecting? It could be as simple as have you eaten lunch? Did you get enough sleep?)
R – Respond mindfully (Make a shift in your mind-body behavior. Do you need to take a break and come back strong after some food, or perhaps a quick walk?)