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What if Exercise Makes You Feel Worse?

What if Exercise Makes You Feel Worse?

Exercise is one of the most important lifestyle habits to adopt when you’re recovering from addiction. There’s a lot of research showing that regular exercise reduces stress and anxiety, improves mood, and reduces relapse risk. Exercise also helps reduce some of the physical health risks of excessive drinking and drug use. Adopting even a moderate exercise regimen, such as walking for 20 minutes a day should definitely be part of your recovery plan.

However, some people find that exercise makes them feel worse--typically more anxious but sometimes depressed as well. If you’ve tried adopting an exercise habit and find that you feel worse, here are some possible reasons.


You’re Relying Only on Exercise


With all the media coverage of the wonderful ways exercise benefits your mental health, a lot of people get the idea that exercise is all you need to deal with a mental health issue. However, mental health is about more than mood. Your thinking, your external circumstances, and even your brain chemistry all play a role as well. You’re not likely to have any kind of strong recovery if you don’t look at the whole picture. That’s why exercise should be just one part of a recovery plan that includes therapy and possibly medication and other lifestyle changes.


You’re Prone to Panic Attacks


If you have a panic disorder, exercise is a bit of a gambit. On the one hand, exercise is probably the best thing you can do for yourself. It reduces your reactivity to stress and improves your mood. It’s also a great way to desensitize yourself to the physical sensations of panic.

When you exercise, you feel physiological stress similar to anxiety, but you know it’s just a normal response to exertion. However, if you push too hard, you may actually trigger a panic attack because your heart is beating too fast, you’re having trouble catching your breath, and so on. Typically, the best thing to do is back off and just push yourself a little bit at a time.

Get your heart rate up for a few minutes, then take a break for a few minutes. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is normal. It might help to have some soothing music handy to calm you down during the rest intervals. Gradually build the challenge by pushing yourself a little bit, then resting and calming down. 


You’re Going Too Hard


Most people getting into exercise for the first time tend to overdo it. They’ve seen too many training montages and Nike commercials and they think they have to exhaust themselves during every workout. Excessively-long endurance workouts are especially bad for raising the stress hormone cortisol and they may actually disrupt your sleep, further compounding your anxiety.

At the other end, you may be overdoing high-intensity exercise such as heavy lifting or high-intensity interval training--HIIT--by cramming too many workouts into a week. These kinds of workouts take more time to recover from and you may end up feeling worn down, depressed, or anxious. There is a saying in fitness circles: Volume, frequency, intensity--pick one. 


More to the point, you don’t have to exhaust yourself every workout. In fact, when you’re first starting out, it’s far more important to create the habit, which means making your workout as easy as possible. Once you’re in the habit of exercising most days, you can gradually make it harder.

Also, you can get a lot of benefits from even moderate exercise, such as walking 20 or 30 minutes a day. Instead of trying to train like a pro, take the opposite approach and ask yourself how little you can do and still get some benefit. As you get in better shape, that minimum will gradually increase.


You Need to Give It More Time


A lot of people, especially in January, start exercising, then give up after a week or two. They don’t see results and they just feel tired all the time. As discussed above, the first thing is to make sure you’re not going too hard, but rather focusing on establishing a regular and sustainable habit. The second thing is to give it a bit of time. Every change is uncomfortable at first.

You have to squeeze a new activity into your day, you have to use more energy than you’re used to, and you’ll probably feel a bit sore for the first week or so. Many people notice an improvement in their mood and sleep pretty quickly, but if you don’t, try to stick with exercising for at least a month before you give it up.


You’re Exercising at the Wrong Time of Day


Time of day can make a big difference. For example, if your body doesn’t regulate blood sugar well, working out before breakfast may be especially miserable. At the other end, exercising too close to bedtime may increase your cortisol and make it harder to sleep, which increases your anxiety. Everyone is different so the important thing is to try some different things and figure out what time of day works best for you. 


You’re Doing the Wrong Exercise


Most research on exercise and mental health has focused on moderate aerobic exercise. The typical recommendation is at least 20 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, or swimming. Weightlifting typically doesn’t have quite as strong an effect on mental health, although several studies show it does help.

However, as noted, we’re all different and we all respond differently to different kinds of exercise. Research may show that aerobic exercise is best, but plenty of people have put many miles on their running shoes to no avail. Then they give it up and start lifting instead and feel like someone flipped a switch on their mood. Listen to your body. If one kind of exercise makes you feel more anxious and another kind calms you down, do the latter. There’s no right or wrong here.


You’re Exercising in the Wrong Environment


Finally, consider the environment where you exercise. If you run along a busy and dangerous street, you’re going to feel more anxious about it than if you run on a treadmill or in a nice park. If you feel like people are staring at you and judging you every time you walk into the gym, you are likely to feel self-conscious and anxious.

Typically, no one in the gym is worried about what you’re doing so make sure you don’t have distorted beliefs about the situation but it is important that you’re exercising in an environment where you feel safe and accepted.


Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health and some level of regular exercise should be part of every addiction recovery plan. When exercise makes you anxious or depressed, the most common issue is overdoing it. It’s also important to listen to your body and make exercise decisions based on your own needs.


At The Foundry, we know that exercise is one of the most important lifestyle changes you can make when you’re recovering from a substance use disorder. We help you make exercise a regular part of your life in a way that’s fun and promotes social connection. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.


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