Ask the expert: Dr Fionnuala McHale
Q: I’m dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety, but I find that when I go for a big run, I can sometimes feel worse. What’s the best kind of exercise for me?
A: If you’re ever feeling particularly bad, the best thing you can do is go for a long walk outdoors.
But as with any activity, the benefit we get from exercise is determined by its suitability to the individual and what the individual wants to get from that type of exercise. For example, if someone wants to get a great athletic physique, then running is going to do absolutely nothing for them.
However, if you suffer from anxiety, then a low-intensity walk can be just what you need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down during a time of heightened anxious state. Where people often go wrong here is in upping the intensity to medium for a prolonged period.
This can have a detrimental effect on anxiety by keeping the stress hormones elevated rather than suppressing them. You should be mindful that the purpose of the activity in your case is not to burn calories or sweat but to calm the mind and relax or switch off. Often I like to prescribe weight training for people who suffer from anxiety.
In my experience, it works better for individuals with certain genetic traits. Resistance training is much easier to monitor as it is controlled, measurable and scaled appropriate to the individual.