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June 09, 2014

Have you ever suffered anxiety or depression? They are both very unpleasant things to experience. Personally I have not suffered either of these things in over a decade, but both conditions were quite present in my teens and early 20s, despite my outwardly confident persona.

Anxiety and depression can be very limiting to a complete and positive life. It can strike anyone too. It’s not just the regular Joe that feels he/she has no purpose or direction in life that is struck down by the black dog. Rich business owners, professional athletes and world famous actors are just as vulnerable. But what does this tell you? It says to me that anxiety and depression are not entirely based on life’s circumstances. Things can be going very well for you circumstantially, but you can still suffer depression and anxiety. So simply changing your life on the outside is not always enough to cure you of this invasive condition. You need to change the inside too.

What I aim to do in this issue is to explain anxiety and depression in the context that it affects your physical health, appearance and performance. And like all issues of the Unleashed Training Journal, I will provide you with some strategies to put into practice the new knowledge you have just gained.

First of all a quick explanation in my own words….

DEPRESSION is a condition that causes a person to feel down or sad, without an external trigger or set of circumstances that explains why you feel that way. We all get sad when a pet dies or if we have lost a large sum of money. This is different, it is a reaction to something that has happened to you. Depression is a similar sad or upset feeling but is not triggered in the same way. Sometimes it isn’t even triggered at all, it just happens. You become sensitive to the smallest disappointment and become upset out of nowhere.

ANXIETY is a condition that involves a latent sense of stress and/or worry that exists whether a stressful situation is occurring or not. A person with anxiety experiences stress with or without a proportionate trigger. Panic attacks often occur, which involves rapid, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, a feeling of impending doom and irrational thought processes. To someone with anxiety minor stressors are blown out of proportion and the sufferer sees smaller problems as sources of significant stress that is not matched equally and rationally.

If you suffer depression or anxiety it is not your fault entirely, there are many reasons for it happening, most often unexplained. Having said that, you will never function optimally in life if you don’t actively seek answers and strategies to improve it.

This article looks at depression and anxiety and how to A) train/exercise without it impairing your workouts, and B) utilise fitness and/or sports performance to actually improve your psychological condition.


There are numerous claims that exercise, in various forms, can help improve psychological well-being and all but eliminate symptoms and/or cure these conditions. The problem is that, quite often, claims precede hard evidence. There are not a lot of studies that can accurately the explain the mechanism of action, even when the outcome is desirable. Knowing the mechanism of action is helpful because we can pinpoint the component that produces the result. Most of what I do is focused towards simplicity and minimalism. This means finding the most effective way with the least number of variables. For this reason, knowing the mechanism of action allows me to eliminate all of the components that do not contribute to the desired result and direct all attention to those that do.

Multiple studies have looked at acute and mid-term effects of exercise on mental well-being. Things like increased endorphin release (responsible for runner’s high), increased serotonin release etc. These things are present, I have experienced it and I have witnessed the effects of these acute benefits in clients/athletes that I have trained over the years. But are these effects are not enough to be considered significant and viable as a treatment option and something that can actually improve the condition as opposed to just the symptoms.

So here are the benefits of exercise and sports performance training for anxiety and depression. Some of these are discoveries from peer reviewed research from some of the many research papers I have read over the years, while other things (most things) are based on my personal experience of applying it to clients and documenting results.

1. Acute positive influence on pleasure hormones/neurotransmitters: When you exercise at a moderate to high intensity your brain chemistry does different things. Exercise is a form of stress, so the body responds by producing natural pain killers such as endorphins like endomorphin, which binds to opiate receptors and acts almost exactly like morphine, codeine, heroin etc. Further to that we also get a dopamine release, which is our reward centre. Dopamine is what makes you want to do things, it’s why anyone does anything, dopamine tells them to do it. By increasing these hormones, among others, you are no longer feeling the symptoms of depression or anxiety, you are feeling good. There may be some carry-over to the long-term, in that your brain will start producing more of these chemicals and become better at bringing them out to play.

2. Good physical health makes you naturally feel better. Think of it this way, a sick person or a tired person or someone with a lot of excess weight on their body is not entirely happy with every part of their life. Their physical health impedes their function as a human, which leads to poor mental states. Being at your goal body weight/fat percentage, being strong, functioning well etc, all make you feel better all the time. The body’s systems function better, you have more energy, you are able to move more freely etc.

3. Fitness provides a controllable activity. Many circumstances are not controllable when they are external to ourselves. We can’t control when a family member dies, we can’t control bad weather and we can’t control the economy of Peru. But exercise and your physical health and performance is something you have complete control over. It’s a personal thing, it can only be done by you. You’re in the driver’s seat.

4. Looking good improves psychological well-being. There are studies that show this, however it is rather logical, someone can improve their mental state by having a lean and muscular body as opposed to being overweight or out of shape.

5. Fitness and performance makes you resilient to stress and anxiety. What this means is that you expose yourself to positive stress through exercise and your brain and body gets better at coping with all types of stress, including depression and anxiety.


Psychological disorders seriously impede on daily functioning. For someone with depression it can be very difficult to be motivated to do simple things, like wash the dishes. So it stands to reason that something like exercise is going to be difficult. Motivation to actually get started with a workout is hard, but further than that, consistently increasing and progressing to ensure improvement is not an easy task if simple motivation is next to impossible.

A person with anxiety is different. Their problem is not generally motivation related. Anxiety is always lurking in the background for a sufferer, which puts a person in perpetual survival mode. That means inaction a lot of the time. Generally a person with anxiety is living in an almost suspended state. Anxiety causes you to play it safe and comfortable. The thought of adding another source of stress or another thing to manage will cause more stress, and eventually lead to giving up. But anxiety is also a source of worry for one’s health. I have actually worked with a number of clients that believed exercise stress combined with the stress of anxiety will result in heart attack or stroke, among other things. Exercise increases your heart rate, makes you out of breath, which is a similar set of symptoms to an anxiety attack.

So how does someone overcome these things? I’m not a psychologist and I am not by any means attempting to replace medical treatment. But what I will do is provide a few strategies that work, based on my own 12 years experience as a trainer and coach and through the experience and discoveries of fellow trainers. We will cover them indivudally…

DEPRESSION can be debilitating, as a result, the main issue is finding the motivation and drive to engage in a self-improvement activity, which in this case is exercise. 1. Like nike says, JUST DO IT! Surely I can’t be serious. Oh but I am. What I mean is that sometimes you have to not be so fragile and just take the plunge and do it. Schedule yourself in to do a session, even a short one, then follow up on it and actually do it. The key is to go in without expectations, just tell yourself to get through that one 10 minute session. Don’t decide on another session until you are done. You can’t always be motivated, sometimes you just have to show up and do it and keep doing the same.

2. Use your own motivation strategy, not someone else’s. Some people are planners, they are more likely to do something if it has been pre-planned with plenty of notice. If this is you then plan your workouts, have the entire session written out in a training journal, schedule the session in to your calendar etc. For others planning might make them feel pressured. They will spend all their time planning and refining but never actually follow through. These types need to go in without a plan, just a basic idea of what you will be doing. Workouts for the second person are spontaneous and opportunistic.

3. Choose a fitness goal that resonates with you, not someone else. If CrossFit is not your thing then don’t force yourself to do it when you would actually prefer ocean swimming. Don’t train for the Boston marathon if you prefer to be strong and muscular etc. Choose what is suitable and desirable to you. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you follow something that actually works. Don’t follow myths that say you need X amount of aerobic exercise per week. If you like Olympic weightlifting then use that to get in shape. Forget the goals of others, they don’t matter to you.

4. Start small and build. If you are depressed then tasks seem huge, even small tasks. Start as small as you need to. Do just a 10 minute session every three days if you have to. Be consistent and increase the workload and intensity gradually.

ANXIETY is a little different than depression. Anxiety causes physical symptoms and is associated with high stress and a rushed approach to everything. The physical symptoms combined with irrational thought processes makes exercise difficult because exercise shares similar symptoms. You need to train yourself to react differently, it just takes repetition and correct conditioning.

1. Use logic and numbers on your side. How likely is it for someone in your age range and health level to drop dead just because they are operating at maximum heart rate? Not very likely.

2. Practice meditation and control of your own body. Focus on reducing your own heart rate, rhythmic breathing etc. Do it daily until you can control it at will.

3. Build resilience through action. Start small and work your way up. You might start with a very light weight for strength sessions or a slow 10 minute run. Build it up and go harder each time.

4. Learn to switch off. A lion is not anxious when it sprints 300m to kill a gazelle, it just does it, it doesn’t think too much. Be present in the moment and train yourself to let go. This issue is rather basic, with quite basic and simple recommendations, nothing here is new. But quite often we forget to do certain things, we suffer in our own brains. This issue is more of a reminder. I’m helping you lay the foundations for using fitness to your advantage, regardless of psychological condition. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity, it works, but only if you follow it.

Unleash Your Physical Potential,

Chris Lyons

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