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Exercise to Beat Anxiety

The World Health Organisation (WHO) appointed October 10 as World Mental Health Day to raise awareness of mental health issues. According to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey, in Malaysia, 29.2% of those above the age of 16 have reported mental health problems. This was an 18.5% increase since 1996, which is pretty significant, especially when considering the fact that most mental health problems go unreported (and untreated). The 2019 Covid pandemic has also made things worse. Global lockdowns, separations, isolations, job losses, fear and anxiety from the disease, and many other factors have made things worse on an unprecedented level! Even though restrictions in Malaysia are gradually easing, the scarves caused by anxiety and depression remain. Many Malaysians are still anxious to go back to the office or get on with their necessary daily activities, such as going to the grocery store. However, a scientifically proven method is readily available for free, which can also help reduce anxiety symptoms: physical exercise.

Anxiety is a completely normal emotion that we can experience daily, and personal trainers are no exemptions. It is fine and natural that we might feel anxious about a project deadline or be late for a meeting while sitting in a jam in Kuala Lumpur. The most common signs of anxiety are feeling tense, experiencing worrying or intrusive thoughts, or even physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and trembling. Normally these symptoms disappear over a short period, but for some people, they remain even for long. Since we all perceive stress (and how we handle it) differently, our stress tolerance will also depend individually. Unfortunately for some people, stress can become overwhelming and way too much to manage, and they even worsen over time. According to the American Psychological Organisation, if many of the symptoms last for more days than not for at least 6 months, then it’s a sign of anxiety disorder.

exercise helps to reduce anxiety

The risk factors for developing anxiety disorder are complex. They include genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events, behavioural and lifestyle choices, and medical conditions. It is important that we point out at this stage that anxiety can be categorised into two categories. State anxiety is our momentary reflection of mood or behaviour in response to a situation. For this reason, it is also called short-term anxiety. Long-term or chronic anxiety is called trait anxiety, which is a reflection of personality that influences behaviour. Treatments to reduce either of them can be:


  • Psychotherapy;

  • Counselling;

  • Medication;


  • Biofeedback;

  • Acupuncture,

  • Neurostimulation


  • Guided meditation, meditation;

  • Yoga and other movement therapies like Tai Chi;

  • Breathing exercises;

  • Mindfulness;

  • Muscle relaxation techniques;

  • Other stress management techniques, etc.

Exercise is considered a supplemental treatment amongst the holistic approaches. However, research is still far from conclusive on how it affects anxiety; what we know for sure is that it’s not a direct cause and effect relationship of exercise reducing anxiety symptoms but rather that exercise improves mood states, which in turn reduces symptoms associated with anxiety. But how exactly does exercise help to elevate the mood, and what exercises are good specifically?

workout with personal trainer to improve mental health

Research is not conclusive, as scientists haven’t come up with a general concept for the therapeutic application of physical exercise. There is growing evidence that regular exercise decreases the effects of anxiety and depression; research on optimal intensity, frequency, duration, and mode of exercise is still not conclusive. However, there is enough data and evidence to help personal trainers devise workout programs that can help clients. Modalities, for example, seem to be equally effective, whether someone is doing cardio, circuit training, or yoga. When it comes to intensity, researches found that moderate exercise intensity for up to 30 minutes. The most robust and reliable decrease in anxiety was found after the low-to-moderate intensity of resistance training sessions. During my training sessions in Kuala Lumpur, I always program resistance training as part of the workout routine.

An interesting finding is that resistance training at high intensity might have the opposite effect! Enjoyment is usually a more important factor for novice exercisers, while discomfort during strenuous workouts might cause them negative feelings, leading to quitting. Regarding regularity, it is very important to understand that making exercise part of someone’s lifestyle is extremely important! They say if you don’t use it, you lose it, and it’s also true for working out. To benefit long term from exercise programs, you need to do them routinely.

To stay on track regularly, you’ll need to stay motivated, and research shows a very interesting insight in this one. Personal trainers, for example, often measure progress in performance outcomes based on goals and how they are met. Research on motivation, however, suggests that improved life quality serves as better motivation. Regular physical activity improves almost all aspects of our lives. It improves physical, social, emotional, spiritual, and cognitive well-being. Suppose personal trainers and individuals, therefore, concentrate more on the emotional and social benefits of exercise. In that case, people can stay motivated and consistent for longer, which means better quality of life over time.

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