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Running & Anxiety: Self treatment is a thing.

Heart pounding.

Lunges gasping.

Tunnel vision closing in.

Legs pumping but not going anywhere....

Am I describing an anxiety attack...or just a really long run?

The similarities are little uncanny, you gotta admit. And that's what makes running such an effective treatment tool for anxiety.

I would know. Because I've got some mean anxiety.

And I've used running to help self-treat it for the longest time...and I didn't even know it.

Research studies starting popping up in the early 2000's officially touting the benefits of high intensity exercise as beneficial for those individuals diagnosed and suffering from anxiety. YEA! on one hand because science is supporting movement as medicine!

DUH! on the other because it's taken THIS LONG to formally support what physical therapists and other healthcare and exercise professionals have been saying for a long time.

Get moving. Go outside and spend time in nature. Be present. Breathe.

But...better late than never, right?

But the science has gotten more interesting as world events have also gotten more interesting in the past year. #thanks2020 A randomized control trial performed in Spain, started January 30, 2020 assessed participant's "depression, anxiety, stress, and resilience...before and after the intervention". The intervention was exercise.

Same exercises were prescribed to "two groups: HIIT and MIT groups (High Intensity Interval Training and Moderate Intensity Training). The MIT group had to perform a home-based intervention based on aerobic exercises, whereas the HIIT group had to perform a home-based intervention based on HIIT exercises. The two groups (HIIT and MIT) had to complete the same physical exercise volume, 40 min per session (6 days per week) during the confinement period (6 weeks)."

(don't worry, I'll link the study down below...)

In case you're confused, although the same exercises were performed by each group, the intensity was different. Think about a 3 mi easy run, easy conversational pace-no problem! Now compare that to a 3mi repeat tempo run, run at a 5K pace. Same mileage, very different intensity!

What the study found was that both groups benefited from exericse. "HIIT and MIT significantly reduced the stress, anxiety, and depression as well as increase the resilience (p < 0.05). Moreover, the improvements obtained in the HIIT group seem to be greater than those of the MIT group in depression (p < 0.05)."

So how come the HIGH intensity group did better than the moderate intensity?

It has to do with our brains...

Scroll back up the top real quick and re-read my opening tag lines...anxiety attack or long run? Uncanny similarities...on purpose.

Feeling overly anxious often comes from a trigger-mental, physical, emotional, etc. Anxiety by itself, is not bad! It's a survival mechanism. Feeling overwhelmed by anxiety is a short circuit in our brains-it's received this trigger, a stimuli, that *something!!!* is happening or going to happen...! And it doesn't know HOW to process it. So it defaults to factory settings: fight, flight, or freeze (..didn't know that option existed, did you? haha neither did I till it happened...oh boy, is that story embarrassing.) And a lot of times, symptoms of these factory default settings including:

racing heart rate

shortness of breath or shallow breathing

dilated pupils

tunnel vision

The list goes on...

I don't know about you, but I feel very similar "symptoms" when I line up for a race. Or in the middle of speed work out. Or I'm tackling a monster hill for the 4th time in a row...

What happens on our runs is we intentionally experience these same symptoms! We are actively acclimating our bodies, minds, and emotions to the experience of living with these heightened, and uncomfortable sensations. We literally training ourselves to SURVIVE!

But Dr. Whitt Fit, that study used HIIT workouts, not running...

Very true.

Due to the nature of the global pandemic and country wide shut downs, our normal coping mechanisms were taken away and others had to be substituted. So for these individuals and for uniformity throughout the study, they were all prescribed HIIT workouts. However, a previous study performed in 2018 noted "The intervention was any aerobic exercise program carried out for at least two weeks, or exercise carried out at high intensity for at least two weeks. "

Running is aerobic.

And running can be performed at a high intensity.

Seems to meet the criteria to me!

Now does this mean you should ONLY run speed work outs or immediately and literally starting sprinting away from your problems? No...

Like in all forms of exercise, high intensity cannot be performed 100% of the time. That's when injuries happen. And although running away from our problems might seem like the easier solution, it's not always constructive.

But high intensity runs in the forms of speed work or hill workouts can be beneficial in the right dosage! Because #movementismedicine.

Ready for examples?

Fartleks. Those quick bursts of speed in between a slower running pace can help center and focus you.

Strides added at the end of 5 miler can help bring awareness of momentum and speed to your legs as you cycle through the different gears.

Hill runs. It definitely takes some mental fortitude, presence, and resiliency to repeat a 5 min hill.

Do these sound too technical for you?

That's ok.

Because lacing up your shoes and just heading out the door for your favorite loop or even new one is still going to land you at a minimum in that moderate-intensity group. And there's still benefits to be had! And clarity to be gained. And peace and stillness to be experienced.

How about you, fit fam? Have you found yourself using running to manage and cope with recent events? What are your go-to workouts? Let me know in the comments below!




And as always fit fam, please seek out the help of a physician or licensed healthcare professional if you feel your symptoms are not manageable and/or are interfering with daily life. There is NO shame in seeking help. Your physical and mental health is important.


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