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PhD candidate Maddie Connor is looking into the effect exercise has on anxiety.

It’s well known that physical activity is good for mental health, but does that mean getting your heart rate up or taking it easy with a stretching session?

That’s what PhD candidate Maddie Connor, of the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, is hoping to find out with her research on the effect of exercise on anxiety.

“I’ve always been quite interested in physical activity for mental health. Growing up, I was quite anxious myself and I found physical activity was a way for me to help manage my own anxiety,” she says.

“One thing I want to do is nail down what we can do with that exercise to make it the most beneficial.”

Maddie’s PhD research is expanding on her honours project which showed people felt better after just one bout of exercise.

“From that project we saw that people did feel significantly better. They had less anxiety after they’d done just one bout of exercise which was really promising to see.”

This time round, her participants will be exercising over eight weeks. Maddie is hoping to recruit 70 participants who will partake in either aerobic exercise or a session of stretching.

“What we want to look at is if you need that aerobic component, like if you need to head out for a run and increase your heart rate, or if you can just have a good stretch and that will have the same effect,” she says.

Maddie is also interested in whether the different exercise techniques can help you feel better in different ways. By understanding this, she feels that we could be more informed when advising people how they might be able to use different types of exercise to help manage their anxiety, saying that “it would be really great to get an idea about what kinds of exercise people can be doing to help”.

Many people experience anxiety, she says.  The people she recruits for her study will have moderate to high levels of anxiety but not necessarily a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

“I’m hoping that through looking at exercise we can help give people the tools to help manage their own anxiety and use things like exercise to help themselves feel better. Importantly, we are hoping to give people more autonomy over what they’re up to within each category of exercise, so that they can learn to listen to their bodies and what they need.”

Maddie says she isn’t looking at what level of intensity has the best effect, but which parts of exercise influence a reduction in anxiety. She also notes that this is not intended to replace any medical assistance that people may need to help manage their mental health, but one helpful tool for people to have in their toolkit.

“We’re looking at how people are able to tune into their bodies and how worried they are about their symptoms.

“Some people, when they get an increase in heart rate, they’re like ‘Oh this is horrible, this is terrifying, I’m so anxious, I’m worried about this feeling.”

She hopes that through exercise people can experience an increase in heart rate and go ‘oh, this is just my heart doing its job, this normal, this is fine’.

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