My anxiety takes many forms. A near constant ringing in my ears. A nervousness that makes me talk fast when I have attention on me. I get a pressure around my chest in certain situations and I have a need to be aware of what’s happening around me at all times. It makes little things greater hurdles than they should be. Some days it’s hard enough to get to sleep, agonizing over the thoughts of what I did and said during the day. I’ve had days where I couldn’t get out of bed for the cloying fear that the work I was doing wasn’t good enough.
I started my movement journey at the age of twenty nine. A growing sense of dread that the approach of thirty inspired. I was out of shape and my back and knees often ached. Too much time spent gaming and running packages for a big delivery company. I thought running might help but it mostly just hurt. I didn’t know any sort of technique I thought you just pounded pavement until you gasped for breath and your side hurt. That was about ten minutes of moving and it was a struggle. Maybe I needed to go to a gym.
I have no idea what I’m doing in a gym. It can be a confusing place with esoteric equipment and asking for help isn’t just intimidating it can be nearly impossible. There are a lot of good youtube videos that explain how to use various gym equipment because that environment can be the right one for some people. It’s a sheltered place with staff on hand in case of an emergency. There’s almost certainly water fountains and lockers to store your stuff.
The gym wasn’t for me. It feels like a highly competitive environment and there’s a focus on muscles for appearance’ sake. For a first time exerciser that’s an unhealthy approach. Quite a few people go to the gym as a sort of punishment for eating too much, or to expunge guilt. Giving in to self-flagellation, even if it to justify one more slice of pizza, or one more taco, or that coke I drank with lunch, is unhealthy and when your exercise is punishment it doesn’t stick.
I tried martial arts a couple times. Aikido seemed interesting, and there was a mixed martial arts place I tried an intro class at, after swallowing the fear of being amongst a group of strangers, it was fun. However I found the rote memorization of individual movements to be less so. Sparring is where martial arts shines though I’ve always been too afraid of hurting someone to participate.
You may find that the focus on discipline is appealing to you. Extreme structure, clear progression through the ranks with possible achievements by practice. That didn’t appeal to me. I like structure, but I want to problem-solve more. A friend recommended I try parkour. By luck I had a gym in my area and they offered a free class. I swallowed my fear and went.
I had a great time. I was presented with an obstacle and given instruction on the steps to overcome it, then shown how that could be applied again to other obstacles. I love practical movement practices. Not that I didn’t still have fear about what I was doing, just that this was the one that appealed to something in myself that would overcome that fear.
Part of what really made me connect with parkour was the coaches, their outlook, and the community that grew around it. After a very short time it felt like home. You might find that in another form, that of the martial arts dojo, or corner fitness, or local swimming pool. My experiences drove me to find a niche and yours can too. It can be a struggle but ultimately if you keep looking you’ll find something you can identify and connect with.
Everyone has some level of anxiety. Besides the ringing and pressure I might get worried about social situations or being in a new environment. Perhaps the expectations we put on ourselves of who or what we should be. I experience these with varying levels of intensity depending on the circumstances and there are consequences. How you react to this anxiety is as unique as you are. Panic might cause your heart to race or make your throat feel like it’s closing. You might tense your shoulders or jaw. Sometimes you might become full of manic energy. You might fixate on unnecessary details. All of the above or others might be how you interact with anxiety.
Each of these are obstacles you’re going to have to overcome and movement is an incredible help to do so. You can reset your breathing and your heart rate with a walk. Unclench your muscles with stretching. Expend your energy in pushups, it feels good and is a productive way to channel an excess of worry into something positive.
If you’re looking for fitness and you have anxiety? You need to find a movement practice that suits you. Because the truth of fitness is if you don’t take the long view you won’t retain it. If you don’t want to do it you won’t. You’ll get trapped in the constant cycle of “I should” and the guilt and shame that comes from not. Followed by all the habits you’ve formed to alleviate those feelings.
Forming positive habits works. I start with a walk. Walk for at least an hour every day. Whether you walk around your own neighborhood at 6am or drive to the closest park and walk around it in circles. The trick is the movement. Adapting your body to the demands of physical activity is hard. You discover all sorts of new aches and twinges from muscles you’ve hardly used. The new habits are going to restructure your body in a hundred tiny ways.
Physical change takes a long time to take effect. There are plenty of stories about people who have lost ten, twenty pounds in a month but massive sudden change is often traumatizing to the body. Finding a slow, steady rate of improvement is critical to your health. Don’t expect permanent positive change to your body after only a few weeks of engaging with your new habit.
Your body will change. You’ll feel more tired for some time. Eventually you might get that energy back. You might actually see little outward change but you will know. You need only compare where you are now to where you were. Can you do more? Walk longer? Faster? Climb more hills? Do more pushups? Stretch further and feel better? Success!
If you ever experience persistent or intense pain, consult a doctor. Fitness and movement aren’t replacements for therapy. Just a piece of the puzzle.
We have this mentality, particularly in America, that you have to have a certain kind of muscled or slender body to be fit. But muscles can be highly specialized. Every kind of fitness will result in different muscles developing and I actually recommend diversity in your movement practice. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to be fit and artificially inflating the size of your muscles doesn’t mean you’re strong.
Body image shapes our mental state a lot more than we think. It’s not just the outside shape that others see, but how we feel internally. Excess weight literally drags us down, while ache and pain from inaction becomes chronic and sublimated into a constant bad mood. Our bodies are designed to move. In a not so ancient past, humans were the greatest hunters on the Earth. We literally walked our prey to death. We are not so distant from our origins to ignore the need to move and we don’t attribute that need to how it impacts our mental state at all.
In the course of my movement and fitness journey I’ve pushed myself to get over practicing in public. Looking like an idiot as I try to jump over a railing and trip in front of pedestrians. Struggling to do a pushup on the grass of a public park. But it has helped me immeasurably to connect my mind and body, focus my breathing and feel more myself for moments without a constant nagging worry about everything and I think if you try it, and try again and again to find what will work for you. Movement can help you too.
by Ian M. Cunningham