Preacher in Harlem got me thinking

“I have divorced my partner of the past 30 years,” he roared. “The partner I have gone to bed with each night and woken up with each morning.”

That got my attention. ‘He’ was a preacher at a service in Harlem and his ‘divorce’ seemed to be oddly personal information. I’d gone to experience the gospel singers but was told I had to stay for the entire service, which included the sermon. I’m glad I did. The preacher was riveting. His message was excellent.

I’ve taken it on board. But how to “divorce worry”?

Meditation? Relaxation techniques?

Dr Helen Brown, Jean Hailes Head of Translation, Education and Communication, has another excellent suggestion.

“Research supports that physical activity can improve mental health. Not only is it a great way to prevent anxiety, it’s also a fantastic way to relieve it,” she says.

Dr Brown, a renowned thought leader in the fields of physical activity, lifestyle and behaviour change, adds: “We are often encouraged by society to see being active as a tool to help us look good. But in reality, it’s just as important to be active for our mental health, helping us to feel good. Physical activity is not just for maintaining our physical health and toning muscle or losing fat – moving our bodies is key to a healthy mind, including reducing anxiety.”

So how does exercise affect mental health?

Dr Brown explains: “Physical activity can elevate our mood and boost our levels of ‘happy hormones’ such as serotonin,” she says. “Being active is a natural antidepressant and decreases our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which often becomes elevated in anxiety or anxious situations.

“What’s also really interesting is that physical activity appears to train the brain to better handle stress. The science is showing us that physical activity actually helps our minds cope with psychological challenges.”

Dr Brown emphasises that worry is a normal and healthy part of being human. It can help to protect us from dangerous situations and can motivate us to achieve and accomplish great things.

However, when anxiety starts to disrupt your daily life, when you start avoiding normal situations for fear of triggering uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, then you may need some help, she says.

“To use physical activity as a way to help manage anxiety, you don’t have to overhaul your whole lifestyle to feel the effects. It could be as simple as taking a walk each day at lunchtime, or walking the dog after work. Moderate and regular activity is key.

“It’s also important to realise that it doesn’t have to be strictly ‘exercise’, such as scheduled sport or dedicated gym training. Anything where you’re physically active counts – from doing the housework with vigour to taking the stairs instead of the lift.”

Dr Brown recommends that anyone with an anxiety disorder or issues with anxiety should seek help from a medical professional. However, including at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity across a week is a great step towards preventing chronic anxiety.   

“Of course, other therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy, mindfulness, meditation and anti-anxiety medication definitely have their place, depending on the individual,” says Dr Brown. “However, being physically active is beneficial for all aspects of our health and can be done by anyone, anywhere. It can be easily used alongside these other therapies for added benefit. Plus, there are no side-effects from being more physically active – except positive ones!”

Note: If you try physical activity as a way to manage your anxiety and it’s still a problem after two or three days, speak to your GP about other ways to support your mental health.

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Written by Janelle Ward

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