Wellness

5 of the best exercises to help control anxiety

There couldn’t be a more natural treatment for anxiety than exercise – so here are five of the best types to help move your body to calmness
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Mindful running

Many of us have read about how mindfulness meditation can help reduce anxiety (along with depression, stress and pain). But you might not have thought about applying mindfulness to your daily run. So, what’s it all about? In a nutshell, it’s being present as you move. A good way to do this is to really listen to your body and mentally connect to your form, movement and breathing as a way to shut out other distractions and worries. ‘Being connected to your breath is especially mindful,’ says personal trainer and founder of Feathers, Food & Fitness, Arabella Featherstone. ‘Getting into a rhythm of calmly and evenly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth while running sends a message to your brain that you are relaxed.’ And if you also want to focus on your movement and form? ‘Concentrate on making sure your knees don’t touch. And that when your foot hits the ground, instead of putting it out in front of you, place it directly under the hip, which limits impact on your joints. Then you’re mentally focusing on that instead of your worries. Plus, it helps prevent injury, too,’ she adds. Win-win! If you need more inspiration, the Nike Run Club app has teamed with meditation app Headspace for some really relaxing, guided, mindful runs.

Yoga

The most beneficial style of yoga for anxiety? ‘A calming form, such as hatha, or a gentle flowing form known as Dru yoga,’ says Sarah Dawson, founder of karmiyoga.com. ‘I also recommend trying yoga nidra, which is a dedicated relaxation class, known in Sanskrit as yoga sleep. It’s a deep relaxation practice that brings awareness to all parts of the body to focus the mind and “intend” relaxation to those parts by first tensing, releasing then relaxing. That mindset is so important right now to manage collective anxiety, so taking time to learn to meditate is key, too’. What about a quick yoga pose to do if you’re having an anxious moment in the middle of the day when working from home? ‘The tree pose is excellent for grounding,’ recommends Sarah. ‘Standing on one leg focuses the mind so it takes the focus from the anxiety and to the earth for ‘grounding’ and earthing – imagine roots growing from the sole of your foot into the earth. This helps boost the base chakra, mooladhara, which relates to the legs, feet, hips and is about our sense of security, stability and connection. Equally, the warrior 1 and warrior 2 poses, are excellent for rebalancing the lower chakras, which can easily become very imbalanced in times of emergency/anxiety. This pose is regal, poised and elegant and reinforces a sense of inner strength and stability by rebalancing the root, sacral and solar plexus for confidence and courage.’

Walking in nature

Spending quality time walking (while respecting social distancing rules, of course)  is an ideal way to keep those Covid worries at bay. And, fact fans, there’s science to back this up, too. Researchers have found evidence that nature has a profoundly positive effect on our brains and behaviour – helping to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, while also helping to increase our attention spans, creativity, and ability to connect with others. Live near a forest? Lucky you! Taking a stroll in it (aka forest bathing) could help you benefit from a lower heart rate (meaning you’re more relaxed and less stressed), better mood and less anxiety than if you walked in an urban setting. But don’t despair, city dwellers – Finnish research has found that as little as a 20-minute meander through an urban park can help in reducing stress.

Resistance training

If you’re not sure what this means, it’s a form of exercise involving lifting or pulling against resistance for a certain number of repetitions to improve muscular strength and endurance. You can do this resistance training at home with just your body weight (think squats, lunges, press ups) or with equipment dumbbells, kettlebells, and resistance bands. And, according to researchers, doing these exercises at moderate intensity (ie. at a level that increases your heart rate, makes you breathe faster than normal and feel warmer), and helps reduce anxiety levels. ‘Resistance training – or, in fact, any strength training – is one of my favourite things, because it gives you the feeling of being physically strong, which also translates to being mentally strong,’ says Arabella. ‘You feel so proud of yourself, empowered and have a real sense of achievement afterwards, too. In life, we have lots of boundaries, and I find that when you push through your fitness ones, it helps you develop a more “can do” attitude in life in general.’ Try the free NHS plan for beginners, or this one, if you’re at an intermediate level.

Gardening

If you’re blessed with an outdoor space to plant things, you’ll be pleased to know that not only will your shrubs bloom, but your mood could, too. Think of it as natural therapy for anxiety. As we’ve said, being among nature is a dead cert in helping reduce anxiety, and gardening gives you a big dose of soul-soothing mindfulness, too. Focus on noticing the colours and smells of the plants and flowers and the texture of the soil. Plus, digging, weeding, trimming and raking counts as a form of aerobic exercise. If there was ever a time to get down and dirty in your flower beds (so to speak!), it’s right now!