How Exercise Can Make You Happy

"I Have Anxiety Attacks"

Shakira Johnson, 32, event and PR consultant, teacher, mom

Johnson's Custom Plan

  • Yoga or Pilates twice a week
  • Tennis lesson via the Rahway Recreation Center once a week
  • Hip-hop class at New York Sports Club once a week
  • Run for 30 minutes once a week
  • Walks with family 45 to 90 minutes once week

Why the Plan Works

"Shakira has two kids, ages 3 and 5, so I gave her options that let her exercise with her family, like walking," Sarvarian says. "Because she loves sports, we got her playing tennis once a week, which is a great cardio workout. And yoga will help her relax."

The Science

"Vigorous exercise may be key for people who have panic attacks," Smits says. "You experience rapid heartbeat and heavy breathing—the same symptoms that occur in anxiety. But when you exercise, you can get accustomed to those symptoms and stop seeing them as negative." In a study from the University of Georgia in Athens, sedentary women with generalized anxiety disorder started doing two 16-minute sessions of cardio a week. After six weeks, 40 percent no longer met the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. Yoga works, too. Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine find that yogis who practiced for an hour, three times a week for 12 weeks, had sharper dips in anxiety and felt calmer than a group who walked slowly for the same amount of time.

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Johnson's Hurdle

"With two small children, it was tough to see how I could fit in all the exercise," Johnson says. "In fact, I didn't manage to do anything the first week. After that failure, I realized I'd have to schedule my workouts like I would a work appointment. So I took out my smartphone and the gym schedule and put classes and workout times into it. After that, I managed to get to the gym and to a tennis lesson at least four days a week for the rest of the program, as well as do other things, like take walks with my family."

Her Week Three Breakthrough

"At first, exercising made me feel tired, but after three weeks, when I got into better shape, I felt more energetic and had an easier time managing my anxiety—the workouts helped me reboot. And I discovered a hip-hop class I really love. When I'm doing it, I'm in the moment, not overwhelmed. I can let my stress go."

How She Lost Inches—and Anxiety

"I wasn't aiming to lose weight, but I lost 4 pounds and 2 inches off my waist. Best of all, once I found a gym with child care and stopped beating myself up if I was a few minutes late to class, I really got into my workouts. Afterward, I felt calm—and sexier! Before I began exercising, I was having several anxiety attacks a week. But I only had two mild ones during the program."

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Six Weeks Later

"Exercising changed my attitude. It forced me to take time for myself and remember who I am: a strong, sexy, athletic woman. What a gift!"

Your Antianxiety RX

Three days of moderately intense cardio 45 to 60 minutes + one or two days of vigorous-intensity exercise 30 to 45 minutes + one or two days of calming yoga = a relaxed state of mind.

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