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.
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 .
However, as a nation, we’re not doing enough of it. According to Sport England, 25% of people are doing less than 30-minutes of exercise a 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. Between 2022 and 2023, in the UK, an average of 37.1% of women and 29.9% of men admitted that they had high levels of anxiety.
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.
Vitality members with qualifying health insurance can access eight online or face-to-face Talking Therapy sessions per plan year.
There are several options, including counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
How does physical activity help manage anxiety?
Recent research from 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 feel a sense of personal achievement and 69% of people say it improved their mental health when attending parkrun.
As a Vitality member, you can earn Activity points for walking or running at a parkrun event.
Parkrunis 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:
- What do I enjoy?
- How much time am I willing to put towards exercising?
- 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.”
Runners Need believe running is for everyone. Whether you’re aiming to complete your first 5k or training for a marathon, you’ll find the best brands and expert advice.
As a Vitality member, you could get up to 50% off a pair of sports shoes each year and up to 15% off full priced items with Runners Need.
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 vitality.co.uk.
 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+
How to stay active in the winter months
Staying active at the best of times is hard, but especially when the weather is wet and cold. Here are five ways to keep moving during the darker months
How to look after your mind with these 5 simple tools
Even though people are actively choosing to prioritise their wellbeing, it’s sadly not improving, and men in particular are struggling with the ‘wellbeing dilemma’
Changing the game: Celtic FC shine a light on mens health
Vitality has teamed up with Celtic FC and its number one, Joe Hart, to hear how the conversation is changing this Men’s Health Awareness month