The internet is full of articles extolling the virtues of both exercise and relaxation to help decrease anxiety. But are these messages contradictory? When and why should we choose exercise over relaxation (or vice versa)? Is one more beneficial than the other? I can answer the first question very quickly. No, the messages are not contradictory because both exercise and relaxation are proven methods in the control and reduction of anxiety and stress.
Two sides of the same coin
Our stress response is activated several times a day; this is simply a result of modern day living. Whether we’re irritated because the train is late or we nearly jump out of our skin because of some noise or a near miss, the stress response is the same. Our heart rate and adrenaline increases, the liver releases glucose for energy that may be necessary for us to run away and various other hormones are released. While all this is happening our immune system is suppressed, which means if our stress response is regularly triggered, it ultimately affects our health.
Fortunately our bodies come equipped with their own countermeasures. Activating the so-called parasympathetic nervous system promotes “rest-and-digest.” This is the precise opposite of “fight-or-flight” with which many of us are only too familiar.
Relaxation comes with its own biological and psychological benefits. Research published in the July 2016 edition of Biological Psychiatry revealed that mindfulness meditation reduces Interleukin-6, a chemical active in inflammation but also associated with stress. Activating our parasympathetic nervous system can be done through various forms of activity or relaxation.
Both exercise and relaxation have their own biological and psychological benefits. In the case of regular exercise the brain shows an increase in a neurotransmitter called Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which slows those excitable neurons that leave us prone to anxiety. Recent research, reported in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that exercise activates the pathway that replenishes neurotransmitters depleted during anxiety and depression. But for those of you whose hearts sink at the prospect of vigorous daily exercise, don’t worry. Even a single exercise session can have positive effects on mood and brain function, according to results published in Brain Plasticity and reported online by ScienceDaily. This is helpful and also points to the potential long-term beneficial effects of consistent exercise.
Is exercise better than relaxation?
In an ideal world we’d be able to pick and choose what we want to do and when we want to do it. We’d be physically and psychologically healthy, and our lives would be perfectly tuned to the things we enjoy. In the real world, of course, things are very different. We can all make choices, but there are times our choices are limited by circumstances. You might, for example, want to exercise, but you can’t because you’re at work, or you’ve injured yourself, or you have a condition, disability or disease that limits activity.
The fact is we can counter the stress response and help reduce anxiety in a variety of ways. Exercise is a great “all-arounder” because not only does it result in a calming effect, but it also benefits us physically. Regular exercise reduces the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers. It also reduces muscle tension and helps deepen breathing. In this sense it has the edge over relaxation because of all the added benefits.
The ideal package, to my mind, is a combination of exercise and relaxation. In the way people prefer some exercises, so relaxation techniques and mindful-meditation are there to be sampled and evaluated for their personal benefits. Simple breathing techniques can have a very rapid calming effect and are therefore excellent in work situations. Nothing is set in concrete, so as situations change or as we get older, there are always different activities, exercises and relaxation techniques available to meet our needs.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.