Focus on Fitness: Get outside and get active to deal with anxiety

By Gloria Schwartz

I’ve recently been experiencing some anxiety that I attribute to the constant media coverage about COVID-19. Whether I’m watching the news or other television programs, listening to my car radio or perusing social media, it’s COVID-19, 24/7. Many people are feeling anxious, too.

With schools closed and children at home getting bored, many workplaces and most public venues shuttered, and government recommendations to isolate, we’re experiencing a new and uncertain reality. People of all ages feel disappointed that special trips and large events have to be cancelled. How can we deal with anxiety about the virus and this new way of life that may last for months? Though I tell myself not to overreact and arm myself with facts (e.g., the majority of affected people recover), sometimes my words ring hollow. That’s when I know it’s time to disconnect and get some exercise.

Exercise is a natural and proven way to decrease mild anxiety. But what can you do when all recreation and community centres and gyms are closed? I find that going for a run outdoors helps me in several ways. I get fresh air. I’m practicing the recommended social-distancing by staying away from crowds in order to reduce my risk of contracting and spreading the virus. When I run, I’m also mentally distancing myself from the media and from my negative thoughts. I’m distracted by the sights along my route and by my music playlist. I feel much better mentally for the duration of my run as well as for hours afterwards. My anxiety symptoms dissipate.

If you’re experiencing mild anxiety, aerobic exercise may be helpful for you, too. Exercise has neurochemical benefits. You don’t have to be a runner. Go for a leisurely stroll, a brisk walk, a hike, a bike ride or anything else you enjoy, as long as you’re allowed out and you avoid close contact. If you cannot get out, open a window for fresh air, listen to the birds and do whatever exercise you can indoors. You can also do strength training exercises if you know what to do when you’re not at a gym.

It’s important to recognize when you have emotional stress and to be aware of the symptoms which can vary from person to person. The physical manifestations of anxiety are wide-ranging and include, but are not limited to, pounding pulse, chest tightness, clenched jaw, headaches, backaches, tense muscles and intestinal problems. The physical symptoms can cause further distress and then you find yourself in a vicious cycle.

These are difficult times. Exercise is just one tool. If you need mental health support, call the Ottawa Public Health Distress Centre at 613-238-3311.

It’s important for children to stay busy and active during the school closures. Irrational fear based on misinformation can get in the way. I was chatting with a woman while waiting in line to pay at a store. She said she was buying some craft supplies because her 10- and 12-year-old kids are getting bored staying at home. I suggested she have them play outside [while ensuring they practice social-distancing]. I reminded her that spring is almost here and it’s already milder and the snow is almost melted. The woman said she doesn’t let them go outside because they might get the virus. I informed her that you don’t catch the virus from going outdoors. The woman looked perplexed. I tried to encourage her by telling her that it’s good physically and mentally for kids and adults to get fresh air and get active rather than stay cooped up indoors for weeks. She shook her head in disbelief as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. Irrational fear can be debilitating. To get the facts on how the virus spreads, visit Ensure you have the most accurate and up-to-date information so you can deal with stress rather than exacerbate it.

Sometimes I get the best advice from my 96-year-old father. I visited him in mid-March and that same day his retirement residence, like all others, stopped allowing visitors in and residents out. I don’t know when I’ll see him again. It could be many weeks or months. I felt anxious already and worried he’d be upset. Instead he reminded me that he’d survived the Holocaust. “Don’t worry,’ he said. “It’ll all be back to normal soon.”