Earlier this year, Lena Dunham struck a chord when she spoke about the positive impact exercise had on her mental health.
“To those struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression: I know it’s mad annoying when people tell you to exercise, and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen … it has helped with my anxiety in ways I never dreamed possible,” the author wrote on Instagram.
Dunham’s not alone here; research has established the value of regular physical activity for people living with mental illnesses.
People who exercise have been found to experience less depression and anxiety symptoms than those who don't, while a study earlier this year found a link between a sedentary lifestyle and an increased risk of anxiety. Physical activity can improve sleep, increase energy levels, elevate mood and balance mood swings, decrease stress, and distract from worrying thoughts.
For some people, however, exercise can actually be a source of anxiety because its physiological processes — increased heart rate, spike in adrenalin, quicker breathing, sweating — can be disconcertingly similar to those of a panic attack.
Blogger Summer Beretsky, who lives with anxiety, feels these affects so acutely she's come to actually fear exercise.
"The rapid heart rate reminds me of my worst ohmygod-I-swear-this-is-a-heart-attack breed of panic attacks. I am always afraid that the quick breathing will make me pass out — even though I know the extra oxygen I’m inhaling is 100 per cent necessary, normal, and natural," Beretsky writes on PsychCentral. (Post continues after gallery.)
Although anecdotally this phenomenon isn't unheard of, research into it is fairly sparse. However, a 2010 study in the journal Hippocampus examined the effect of exercise on the emotional behaviour of adult mice, and found the mice exhibited some signs of stress and anxiety-like behaviours.
Joe Bonington, strength and conditioning trainer and founder of Sydney adventure gym Joe's Basecamp, has witnessed this reaction in people who are predisposed to anxiety.
One of his clients who took up running found her breathing would get "all over the place", which in turn would make her anxious and prompt an attack. Another has an extreme fear of lifting objects above her head, including weights. Bonington says even a workout with a highly competitive atmosphere, like Crossfit, can be triggering for someone who has anxiety.