It is a common practice when seeing new patients suffering from anxiety to ask them if they’re getting any exercise. We know that exercise can help alleviate the symptoms of both anxiety and depression, though we’re not exactly sure why that is. Some research suggests that increased levels of endorphins play a role, while other research points to the individual’s attribution of a quickened heartbeat (often a sign of anxiety) to physical exercise rather than some external stimuli. But new research out of Queens University in Canada suggests that exercise or progressive muscle relaxation can actually change the way we view the world, in particular our perception of threats.
In a recent study, researchers asked student participants to walk, stand, or jog on a treadmill for ten minutes and then fill out a perception form, including identifying the direction of a walking stick figure. Those who stood for ten minutes were more likely to identify the figure as walking toward them (considered more threatening), while those who exercised – even just walking – were more likely to see the figure as walking away from them (considered less threatening). The results were similar for participants who engaged in some form of progressive muscle relaxation, as well. Something about the exercise and relaxation exercises had changed the way the participants perceived the world, from more threatening to less. This, it turns out, reduced their anxiety. So while we may not entirely understand how exercise and relaxation exercises help to improve our mood, there is abundant evidence that it is indeed the case.