How physical activity can hack your anxiety


Physical activity can improve many aspects of daily life, but what many don’t realise is how effective it really is. Vitality Magazine finds out for you


One of the most effective ways to combat anxiety is physical activity. Evidence shows – if done on a day-to-day basis - it can reduce feelings of anxiety, while helping us to feel better and function more easily.

According to Department of Health and Physical Activity, there’s a 20%-30% lower risk of depression for adults who are active daily.

Something we also see within our own data, which shows that Vitality members who earn more Vitality Points (achieved through tracking physical activity) are significantly less prone to depression [1].

However, as a nation, we’re not doing enough of it. Research shows that one quarter (26%) of Brits are doing less than half an hour of exercise every week, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends we do at least 150–300 minutes of it.

Here, we explore why physical activity is such an effective way to combat mental challenges such as anxiety, and how to get started on your journey by using a few hacks along the way.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges and that you are not alone if you suffer from it. In 2023, more than eight million people in the UK were experiencing an anxiety disorder

Silvia Cordoba, Vitality Coach and mental health expert, describes anxiety as “a feeling that we can all feel at times, it may occur in response to a stressful situation and carry over after the it has been resolved.”

Symptoms of anxiety can range from heart palpitations and difficulty breathing to lesser-known symptoms such as problems with digestion and even tinnitus (also known as ringing in the ears).

Anxiety can be thrown at us in many ways, often without us even recognising it. “Speaking to those around you, or to your GP, about the symptoms you’re experiencing can help identify and manage it,” adds Silvia.

How does physical activity help manage anxiety?

Research by Harvard Health found that engaging in physical activity diverts your focus away from worries and stressors.

And, moving our bodies releases tension, which has been found to lower anxiety by increasing bloody flow and neurochemicals (feel-good hormones, like serotonin).

“Physical activity releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that improve mood, increase motivation and our sense of achievement,” explains Silvia.

Even a small amount of physical activity, such as a 10-minute brisk walk, can increase our energy levels and help us interrupt negative racing thoughts.

Regular exercise also builds resilience to help fight against negative emotions and mental challenges that might present themselves in the future.

So, participating in events like parkrun – should you walk, run, or volunteer – is beneficial.

An independent survey found that 91% of people who completed a parkrun feel a sense of personal achievement, while 69% said their mental health was improved after attending a parkrun.

Why not find out more about parkrun and it's benefits, by reading Mark's story

As a Vitality member, you can earn Activity points for walking or running at a parkrun event.

Parkrun is a great way to try out running for the first time or getting involved with a new activity; it’s free and there are hundreds of locations to choose from.

And, if running isn’t for you, you can also get involved by volunteering to help out at the events, or even ‘parkwalk’ it. Receive Active points with qualifying health insurance and life insurance plans.

Log into Member Zone for the details.

Where do I start?

If you’re stuck on how to get started, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What do I enjoy?
  2. How much time am I willing to put towards exercising?
  3. Can it be done in a group?

Most of us learn (sometimes the hard way) that there’s no silver bullet, and we shouldn’t expect drastic change overnight.

In the throes of his preparation for a 700km run across Iceland, Jamie Ramsay, an endurance adventurer and Ambassador for Vitality partner Runners Need, explains that he gets the most from exercise when he makes it part of his daily routine.

The former 9-5 man says that running is the “backbone” of his mental stability. “When I am running regularly, I can noticeably feel more order, structure and calm in my everyday life.”

Endurance runner or not, Jamie understands, just like any beginner, that getting started can be the hardest part: “A lot of people tell me that they find running too difficult […] but that is completely normal.

Sometimes I find the start of a run a serious uphill battle, but if you push on and let your body ease into it then it does become easier.”

Set a goal

This could be anything from setting an intention, or something you’d like to achieve by a certain time.

Adding your ‘why’ will not only boost motivation but add a sense of purpose and determination to what you do.

Jamie says that by setting a goal like this, it can encourage you to stay motivated.

He says: “Having something to aim for gives you that extra desire to get out there, whether it be a race or challenge with a friend.

“One trick I used when training for big runs was to use a treadmill every now and then and have a boxset that I was only ever able to watch when running.

“The desire to find out what happened next in Dexter got me to the gym day after day.”

Do it with a group or someone you know

Being a part of a team sport or group physical activity is an opportunity to make new connections with people and has been found to reduce stress more than doing it alone.

“Having more people around can be a great way to stay motivated and make you feel a part of something,” says Jonny Kibble, Head of Physical Activity at Vitality.

Joining an activity like parkrun is a great way to start from a place where it feels comfortable, achievable and everyone is welcome – friends and family alike.

Finding what’s right for you will ease any pressures or worries you might be feeling.


If working out in a group is not for you, there are other ways to motivate yourself... give yourself a good talking to.

The way we talk to ourselves (or our inner voice) combines conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs, which creates mind chatter that we experience throughout the day.

Often, we can find ourselves steering our thoughts towards negative talk. By introducing positive self-talk and affirmations – or positive statements to help overcome negative thoughts – we can reframe situations in way that helps motivate us and feel happier.

Repeating self-affirmations and positive self-talk can feel a bit strange to begin with, but if you stay consistent it has been shown.

I exercise, but I’m still struggling with anxiety

It’s also true that people who exercise regularly also struggle with their mental health, and no one is immune to it.

At the height of his career, Vitality Ambassador and rugby legend, Jonny Wilkinson, suffered from mental health challenges, and is a staunch advocate for mental wellbeing.

Speaking in an interview with Vitality earlier this year, he said: “There’s a misrepresentation that winning will bring you ultimate joy or ecstasy.”

For Jamie, though, trying fresh things and setting new challenges is one way to make sure his running is still working for him. “Life can get difficult and sometimes your daily [exercise] isn’t enough to give you the escape you are looking for.

“When this happens to me, I try and shake up my running and seek new routes in more beautiful places and on different surfaces.

“Also, if I feel that my running is not being as beneficial as I want, then entering a trail race often helps.”

He concludes: “It gives me something to focus on in my training and adds the extra boost I need to bring the focus back to my running, and away from the stresses of everyday life.”

At Vitality, we understand the importance of taking control of your health. That’s why we offer mental health support for our members through our insurance plans.

To access support and care for your mental wellbeing, log into Member Zone, where you will find a number of options; whether you need urgent help, online support or want to access counselling sessions.

Qualifying plans apply.

Or, if you are not a Vitality member and want to find out more about our plans, visit

[1] Average K6 score for members who earned no Vitality points after conducting their Health Review fell monthly in comparison to those who earned 80 - 120+

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