Anxiety & mood
3 MINS

How exercise can really keep your anxiety in check

by Emily Turner

When you’re feeling anxious and the walls are closing in, it’s pretty hard to resist wrapping yourself into a duvet sausage roll, burying your head beneath the covers and waiting for the emotional wave to pass. Sometimes, that is exactly what is needed, but did you know the levels of exercise you do at menopause can really impact how you feel?

I saw a great meme the other day. It said: “When you are feeling super low, you can guarantee that someone in a live, laugh, love t-shirt will pipe up and ask if you’ve been outside!” It is excruciatingly irritating when your nerves are jangling and you feel out of sorts to be told to get out into nature, get your blood pumping and feel the fresh air. But what if there really is something in it?

Stella’s Clinical Lead, Dr Michelle Griffin, explains: “The science says it all. Exercise impacts how you feel and think. Evidence from studies with midlife women shows that increasing exercise decreases psychological symptoms, such as depressive mood, irritability and anxiety.” 

What exercise does to your body’s hormones

  • Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol
  • It stimulates the production of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators
  • Women who are physically active report better sleep quality and a decrease in sleep disturbances
  • Sleep and mood are linked – improving your sleep will also help balance and boost your mood

Dr Griffin says: “Endorphins are responsible for “runner’s high” and the feelings of relaxation and optimism. This can become a very positive cycle, where you crave that high and actually want to do exercise when you feel low, anxious or overwhelmed.

“Keeping your body busy means your mind is distracted from negative thoughts and the pile-up of daily worries. It will give you some headspace to think creatively, relax you and provide moments of exhilaration as you progress. Exercise is a brilliant way to stimulate and calm yourself, countering depression and relieving stress and anxiety.”

Read Ida’s story on how walking helped her manage dark thoughts.

Does this mean intensive gym sessions? 

Not necessarily. You don’t need to go sweating it out at a spin class to start reaping the calming benefits of exercise but cardio (aerobic or endurance training) is what you need to aim for to really help with your mood. 

Dr Griffin says: “You don’t need to buy an expensive gym subscription. Some brisk walking, running, or cycling will be a great place to start. Your breathing and heart rate will increase during these activities but not so much that you feel like you need to stop and rest. Within Stella, we have low-impact exercise videos designed specifically to reduce the impact on your joints and get your heart rate up.

The more you exercise and feel stronger and fitter, your self-image and esteem will start to improve. You will soon start to feel happier because you feel healthier and enjoy the routine of a regular workout. It might even become something you learn to look forward to!”

How I went from deskbound to active in six months

I’ve felt off-kilter with weird moods during perimenopause, including a repeat ticket on a vile confidence rollercoaster, plus jetstreams of rage. It feels like I can chart my fluctuating oestrogen against the wild peaks and dips! Embroidery helped the anger and I began to exercise to improve my mood and overall wellbeing. 

When I started being active, my exercise levels were at an impressively low 1,200 steps a day (hello, homeworking), as I shared in this post. Walking was uncomfortable and I was a bit breathless if talking and walking. Walking was never something I would have done for fun!

I began by walking after work and I increased to 3,500 steps. I slowly built up my walks to reach 5,000 steps and, before long, I was walking twice a day to get to 8,000 steps. After five months, I was averaging 10,000 steps (around 1.5 hours per day) and building in hills. 

Keeping it interesting

It’s now an automatic habit. I walk every day and I feel twitchy until I’ve gone for walk outside. I began to look at my active minutes instead of focusing on steps to try and get my heart rate up. I started to add in cycling and sea swimming. 

I’ve gone from 22 mins per day (to reach the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week) to an average of 350 minutes each week. I even recently went for my first 2.5-hour cycle ride (we won’t mention that I fell off!).

How has this impacted my mood?

Over the six months, my sleep has improved from 5.5 hours a night, including being awake for an hour at 3am regularly, to an average of 7.5 hours a night. I still wake up but I can get back to sleep easily.”

I feel generally more optimistic, open to new experiences and have more happy days. When the difficult days appear, I just plod them out on a walk. No matter how bad I feel, I’ve never felt worse after going outside. 

Mind you, if anyone pops up in a live, love, laugh t-shirt to tell me to enjoy the fresh air when I am in misery, I might still lose it…

Final word

Dr Griffin says: “Activity in all forms is great at boosting mood due to its biological and psychological effects. When you are doing exercise and burning energy, you are stabilising your blood sugar and preventing mood-inducing sugar dips. Also, exercise gives you a great hormone high which can become very rewarding. You can quickly feel your body and mind want to be active!

“It may seem obvious but exercise is key for long-term heart, brain and bone health. As women progress through perimenopause and beyond, the level of oestrogen reduces which can lead to an increase in long-term health conditions. Different types of exercise provide different benefits, so a mixture of cardio, strength training and flexibility is helpful. But, most of all, do what you enjoy as you will want to keep doing it!”

Find out more about menopause on our blog.