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Move Your Body to Calm Your Anxious Mind

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For many people, the idea of facing those scary-looking machines in a gym, while trying to keep up with a fit and slender Speedy Gonzales who is sprinting at lightning speed on the treadmill beside you, is enough to make you want to sit back down on that cozy couch of yours. You think about getting in shape, you've heard time and time again that there are lots of good things that come as a result of working out. But you're busy. Your job is demanding. You've got to take the kids to soccer practice. You don't like getting up early in the morning. You're too tired by the time you get home from work. I know -- we've all heard it/said it all before. But these very things are usually what are adding stress and anxiety in your life. We're not taking time to look after ourselves. After prolonged periods of ignoring your body and mind's warning signs, anyone who suffers from anxiety attacks, depression or severe stress can attest that soon enough, your body will let you know -- in no uncertain terms -- that you've been ignoring yourself for too long and it's time to start paying attention.

When it comes to getting in shape, we often focus on the physical benefits -- you'd like to get smaller or bigger, you have dreams of washboard abs and perhaps a patoot that you could bounce a quarter off of. While these benefits are nice, I think we often forget about even more important gains for those of us with anxiety and/or depression: It'll make your mental and emotional self feel better.

I'm certainly no gym rat, and have tried the gym thing many times over the years and it just never stuck. I would find myself on the elliptical machine, staring at that dreaded timer and wondering why 30 minutes feels like a lifetime. I'd try to distract myself by reading or listening to music, but those "I hate this" thoughts continued to go through my mind. I'd look around at everyone else who was slugging it in the place and wonder if they were actually enjoying themselves or just got into the habit of regularly forcing themselves to get on those machines. I finally decided that the jig was up -- I didn't like the gym.

Luckily, I happened to find something that did stick. Twice a week, I go to a Booty Camp Fitness class, Canada's largest women-only boot camp. You might envision a drill sergeant instructor screaming profanities in your face while you're wondering if you're going to live to see the end of the class, but these sessions are very different. Yes, your instructor pushes you to do your best, but they're also really cool. It's a welcoming environment and women of all ages, fitness levels, shapes and sizes take part. I've never felt intimidated or out of place, and really enjoy myself. Seriously. You know what else is great about it? After a workout, I feel really good. I feel relaxed and am able to think clearly.

I reached out to Sammie Kennedy, Booty Camp Fitness CEO, to find out what it is about exercise that makes us feel so good. "As far as exercise effects go, in the short term, activity releases feel-good hormones in the body that elevate the mood and relieve stress," she wrote in an email. "Studies have also shown it can reduce immune system chemicals that cause depression and increase body temperature, which increases the feeling of calm in people. It can also increase confidence and create new support systems for individuals, both amazing at helping one feel secure and calm."

Okay, this is good news. But what about those people who find that an increased heart rate is a trigger for a panic attack? "A yoga program may be a good place to start, although aerobic activity has been shown to be particularly effective. Perhaps starting with a brisk walk and increasing intensity to a jog or a higher-intensity cardio exercise program, as regular exercise helps to reduce anxiety -- that would be a good strategy for those individuals."

I can attest to the benefits of regular exercise, but I'm not the only one. There are plenty of people who have also gotten into the habit of increasing their physical activity for the sake of their physical and mental well being. I spoke with Toronto-based personal trainer Margaret Ramsay, who has worked with many clients who suffer from depression and/or anxiety. "I've worked with a number of clients who suffer with anxiety and depression and all of them -- and I mean all -- have noticed a real improvement in their mood and anxiety levels by exercising," she said. "One of my clients recently said that she was looking forward to having a stronger body and feeling stronger emotionally, too. It seems that when your body is stronger, you feel that empowerment emotionally as well. I hear it all the time."

"The key is to find something that works for you. So, take that class, go for that walk, or join that sports team. Give it a try," said Margaret. "If you don't like it, it just means that you need to find something else. Keep trying new things until you find an activity that works for you."

Even if you've never worked out before, you would be amazed at how quickly your body can adapt and grow stronger when you get moving. If there's one thing I've learned through this process, it's that you should never underestimate your own strength. How do you know what you're physically and mentally capable of if you don't try? I can guarantee that your couch isn't going to reduce your anxiety or make you feel better, but getting your sweat on a bit surely will. By buying into those "I can't" thoughts, you're selling yourself short. For many, it's these very thoughts that landed you in the panicky state that you're in. If you're in the head space that says you can't control your emotions or your thoughts, tell yourself that the one thing you absolutely can control is whether or not you get moving each day (or even a couple times a week). You might end up feeling more of a sense of power over your own body as a result. Don't ever give up on yourself.

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