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  • Writer's pictureTo Your Health Editorial Staff

Why you might feel sad or anxious after intense exercise, and how you can minimise it

Right. We're a couple of weeks into 2021, and you've embarked on a new, high-intensity exercise regime.

Full of enthusiasm, you launched into boot camp, went to your first spinning class or started running up and down hills in the bush.

But afterwards, instead of basking in a warm post-workout glow, you felt close to tears.

A session of intense exercise commonly makes us feel pretty good — it boosts positive emotions and lowers negative ones.

Yet this isn't the case for everyone, and not all the time. And if it sounds familiar, you are certainly not alone.

Teasing out exactly why someone may feel down during or just after a full-on workout is tricky, but a few factors may contribute, says Michaela Pascoe, a researcher in mental health, mindfulness and physical activity at Victoria University.

When we vigorously exercise, our heart thumps harder and faster, and we start sweating.

This is like the fight-or-flight response, where our body readies itself to attack a threat or run away.

"These sorts of physical experiences that people can have during intense exercise can be closely aligned with the symptoms of anxiety," Dr Pascoe says.

"So if somebody does experience anxiety, it's even more important to consider what sort of physical activity might be appropriate for them."

That's not to say anyone with a history of anxiety shouldn't take part in high-intensity exercise. But instead of getting stuck straight into a demanding regime, start slowly and build up — a bit like exposure therapy — to get your brain and body used to it.

There's some evidence that when we exercise at a moderate level, we focus on positive thoughts and away from negative. But once we push intensity levels up, that disappears.

Exercise can also heighten existing emotions, and — especially in this unpredictable world — may leave you feeling more stressed out than before you started.

Even if you're not aware of worries rattling around in your subconscious, they can rear their head during exercise.

This is partly because physical activity can have you taking close notice of parts of your body, such as where they are and how they feel, in the present moment.

This sense of "body awareness" can elicit strong emotional experiences to happenings you may not have been paying much attention to, Dr Pascoe says.

"This is often found when people start practicing mindfulness activities, like meditating, which bring that sense of presence and body awareness, and those emotions may initially come up.

"In the immediate or the short term, it may even be a little bit distressing, but in the long term, it can have beneficial effects."

Add exhaustion to the mix, and your brain is less able to hold those emotions back. The dam breaks, and all of sudden, the waterworks begin.

How can I prevent this happening?

If you feel post-exercise sadness or anxiety only now and again, and you quickly bounce back to normal, there's no real need to do anything, says Rhiannon Patten, an exercise physiologist undertaking a PhD at Victoria University.

"It's perhaps just what our body needs at the time."

And while not everyone responds the same way, there are also a few tricks that might make those mood dips less likely to occur or, at least, minimise them.

Some physical activity studies use what's known as the ventilatory threshold to draw the line between what we consider pleasant and unpleasant.

It's around the point where your breathing starts feeling fast and laboured, and your body sends signals that it can't keep up that intensity for too long.

"High-intensity interval training is a really big trend at the moment, and is something that people most often perceive as enjoyable and time-efficient, and something that they want to participate in," Ms Patten says.

"But if it's beyond a person's ventilatory threshold, it can evoke a negative change in mood."

Still, there are ways to approach or even surpass your ventilatory threshold without feeling down afterwards, such as taking charge of the type of exercise you do.

"If it is something that people enjoy doing, they're more likely to have a positive mood post-exercise, even if it is close to, or beyond, that threshold," Ms Patten says.

"Choosing an activity that you enjoy doing is a huge, huge part of the affective response to exercise."

So if you're not a fan of circuit training, don't start your new exercise regime by signing up to a boot camp where a trainer yells "push it!" in your face for 45 minutes.

Crucially, know that post-exercise mood dips will pass, and exercise has immense short- and long-term benefits for body and mind.

Don't let those emotional outbursts derail your goals, Dr Pascoe says. Suss out a few options to find the most enjoyable types of exercise for you.

"If it feels good, that intrinsic motivator is a much stronger driving force and a bigger predictor of ongoing engagement than anything else," she says.

"So trying different things is really important, because nobody wants to do something that makes them feel terrible."

Article from ABC Science

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