Chocolate and a Walk: The New Anti-Anxiety Pill?

A change in diet and exercise might be the only anti-anxiety pill you need. Photo: Jessica Tam

Money, health, family, job stress… life offers plenty to fret about, and worrying a bit is part of being human. But when worrying becomes excessive, difficult to control, and long-lasting, it can be devastating. About 6.8 million adults in the U.S. are coping with Generalized Anxiety Disorder  (GAD), including twice as many women as men; women are also twice as likely to take anti-anxiety medication.

Whether or not your anxiety has reached a clinical level, keep in mind that exercise and nutrition are powerful, natural, lifestyle tools to help soothe frazzled nerves and promote relaxation.

Tranquil Training

More and more mental health experts recommend exercise as a part of the treatment plan for anxiety. Research shows that exercise boosts brain function, promotes an optimal balance of brain hormones and neurotransmitters, and even changes the structure of the brain in beneficial ways:

  • A recent study found that exercise training creates new, excitable brain cells, plus cells that quiet brain activity. When subjected to minor stress, physically fit animals experienced a quick rush of worry followed closely by a flood of calm; their sedentary peers didn’t recover as quickly.
  • A cardiovascular workout of at least 20-30 minutes, 2-3 times a week at a moderate intensity is generally recommended for anxiety management. Intensity doesn’t seem to matter as much; lower and higher-intensity workouts may also enhance mood, but very high intensity training can have a negative effect. (1,2) Some studies also show moderate-intensity strength training effectively quells anxiety.
  • Making exercise a regular part of your lifestyle is your best bet for feeling your best from day to day. But even a single workout can boost mood for up to 12 hours; when you feel anxiety rising, going for a short walk or bike ride may be just the thing to help you feel better in the moment — and for the rest of the day.

Calming Cuisine

Work the following foods into your meal plan regularly to help keep anxiety under control:

  • Dark chocolate is high in magnesium, a mineral that naturally promotes muscle relaxation; it’s also rich in antioxidants called flavonols, which reduce blood pressure. Consuming this confectionary delight has been shown to reduce levels of circulating stress hormones. Feel better already?
  • Blueberries are also packed with antioxidants, which work to quiet inflammation, thereby calming the body’s natural stress response.
  • Whole grains are “slow” carbohydrates that won’t spike blood sugar, and are known to increase production of serotonin — a hormone that regulates mood.
  • Nuts and other protein-rich foods stimulates production of norepinephrine and dopamine, chemicals that increase energy and mental alertness. Choose proteins rich in heart-healthy fats, such as almonds, walnuts, cashews and fatty fish.
  • Green leafy vegetables such as kale, chard, spinach and seaweed are rich in magnesium for relaxation; they also contain B vitamins, which help maintain energy levels. Beans and legumes are good sources of magnesium and B vitamins.

Avoiding caffeine, refined grains and “fast” sugars, and alcohol also reduces anxiety and enhances well-being.

Take Action

The evidence is overwhelming — good nutrition and regular exercise can work wonders to reduce anxiety and enhance your sense of peace and well-being. Have you used lifestyle changes to manage anxiety? We’d love to hear about it.

Note: If you’re being treated for an anxiety disorder, talk to your health care provider before making any changes in your treatment plan or starting an exercise program.

References

  1. Kilpatrick, M, EXERCISE, MOOD, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING: A Practitioner’s Guide to Theory, Research, and Application, ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal. 12(5):14-20, September/October 2008.
  2. American College of Sports Medicine, Ch. 50, Stress and Anxiety Disorders, ACSM’s Exercise Management for Persons with Chronic Diseases and Disabilities, Human Kinetics, 2009

Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports. www.wellcoaches.com/beth.shepard

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