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How to Overcome Exercise Phobia

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  • How to Overcome Exercise Phobia

    Firstly I just ordered the PB book and joined here and I'm looking to make more progress on fitness and health goals. 3 yrs ago I was 5'7" 230 lbs and I have done an Atkins-like low carb and now weigh about 170. I really didn't do any exercise except for some occasional walking to lose the weight. In my case I was very carb sensitive. However now I want to build some muscle and lose more fat.

    My problem is that I have had anxiety issues for many years (10+) including panic attacks but this has improved markedly in "normal" life in the last couple years. I am hoping by refining my diet more and doing some exercise I can make progress in this area as well. However, when doing some weightlifting of even beginner level weights (barbell) I tend to have an increase in heart rate that is probably completely normal but sets off my feeling of panic attack or is in many ways similar to panic attack feelings which causes me to have a phobia of this type of exercise. It is like the elevation of heart rate is so ingrained in my experience that to my mind this becomes a panic attack rather than exercise. I will tend to get a little dizzy feeling (which is how panic attacks made me feel), and just want to quit working out after a few reps of squat or deadlift. Presses seem to be OK because they don't seem to elevate my heart rate as much to create this cycle.

    Does anyone have any experience dealing with this type of phobia/panic? I feel like I need a base level of conditioning to gain some confidence but on the other hand elevated heart rate is a normal part of exercise which I don't see how I'm going to cope with. Ideas?

  • #2
    Wow - that must be tough.

    I used to have panic attacks on airplanes but I seem to have grown out of that. They were horrible - the feeling that you are about to die is not fun.

    What if you tried lifting weights out of the context of lifting weights? Like maybe lifting heavy bags of soil while gardening? Or body weight work like stairs or maybe pilates? I would also suggest you start off VERY slowly and with very light weights / resistance. Maybe some light kettlebells?


    • #3
      Start with bodyweight movements. You're much less likely to hurt yourself with no bar above your head, ect... That'll build the confidence to move to weight lifting and more intense (bodyweight can get very intense) workouts.

      I also have to recommend that you get protein at any and every meal or snack you eat to help with anxiety and neurotransmitter health.
      In Pursuit of Healthiness, Only to Achieve Happiness!:


      • #4
        Perhaps you need to remember to breathe? I used to get a bit light-headed when I first started deadlifting, and one time I even burst a blood-vessel in my eye and it turned all red. I had a knowledgeable person check my form, and he pointed out to me that I was holding my breath on my lifts. I had to focus on remembering to breathe through the lifts, and that took care of the problem.


        • #5
          Thanks for the suggestions. I went ahead last night and decided to mentally just take it one at a time and take as much rest between sets as I wanted so I can feel like I'm in control of the heart rate. This kind of mentally made it easier to achieve and hopefully this approach will build some confidence. Ultimately I know it will be good to string the exercises together a little more (not to mention, more efficient) but this might be what it takes to get started.

          The breathing is something that is difficult for me as well so I will watch that.

          Thanks all.


          • #6
            I've never had a panic attack - but if elevated heartbeat is one of the symptoms, you should try to remember while exercising that panic attacks are not caused by elevated heartbeat. So when you exercise and your heartbeat starts to rise, it's because of increasing activity of your body, not because of an anxiety disorder. I guess the key is avoiding the fear of triggering a panic attack, which IMO is not warranted, since it simply isn't normally caused by elevated heartbeat.
            MikeEnRegalia's Blog - Nutrition, Dieting, Exercise and other stuff ;-)


            • #7
              I think what you're doing now is the best way to approach it, sensible and slow "exposure therapy." Try some relaxation techniques before and in between sets. And it's very easy as a beginner to hold your breath when you're lifting something, but that would probably resemble the shortness of breath during a panic attack and make it even worse.

              I also second EGY's advice to not do anything potentially dangerous while you're getting used to it - the last thing you need is a serious injury, that could make you DIRECTLY afraid of exercise!
              "mayness, you need to have a siggy line that says "Paleo Information Desk" or something!" -FMN <3

              I'm blogging again, at least a little bit.


              • #8
                I completely understand what you are talking about. I have the same problem. I have suffered with panic attacks for 20 years or more and the heart palpitations scare me most of all. When my heart rate increases with exercise it starts to feel so much like a panic attack that I avoid it. I do think that starting out slow and then pushing ourselves a little bit more and more is the answer though. As mayness said "exposure thereapy".


                • #9
                  I, too, have suffered panic attacks and anxiety disorders for most of my life. Exercise has always been a problem for me... many people don't realize the similarity in "feelings" associated with panic and exercise. I worked with a therapist and a very considerate personal trainer last year to overcome my problem.

                  First of all, I never lift or do intense exercise without a nice, long warm-up. Walking is best for me, because it's a relaxing activity that slowly warms up my body and brings my heart rate to the right level. I don't walk so fast that I'm out of breath or have a racing heartbeat. Before I start lifting, I put a piece of chewing gum or a mint in my mouth. It's weird... but actively chewing helps to keep me from hyperventilating. You're pretty much forced to breathe through your nose (lest you drop your gum on the floor). When I lift, I do full-body movements first, like planks, followed by the more intensive isolating exercises.

                  Whatever you do, don't wear a heart rate monitor!! Seeing that number climb is sure to set off a panic attack. Just keep in mind that when you stop the activity, you will return to normal. Try it out... get the heart rate up, stop the exercise, wait for yourself to return to normal. Repeat the process. Do this in a comfortable environment at first, not a crowded gym. Good luck, and let us know how you're doing!!

                  I've gotten so much better at controlling my panic process, and now I can actually run a little and have sprinted on occasion. The trainer I worked with previously listened to my concerns and was very considerate of the process. She would


                  • #10
                    Remember your heart is a muscle. Working it out and making it beat faster due to exercise will only make it stronger. Not working it out will make the muscle weak and more susceptible to bad things. Also, the heart is a pump and the more you workout you oxygenate your vascular system thus increasing the diameter of your arteries. You should panic when you don't exercise your heart. And if your heart wasn't beating faster from workouts then you would really have a problem.

                    Also, many studies show that regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain which is a key component in overcoming anxiety and depression.

                    (I also used to trip out a little bit when I would play basketball and my heart rate would near 200 bpm. But I got over it quickly since it is perfectly natural.)
                    "If man made it, don't eat it" - Jack Lallane

                    People say I am on a "crazy" diet. What is so crazy about eating veggies, fruits, seafood and organ meats? Just because I don't eat whole wheat and processed food doesn't make my diet "crazy". Maybe everyone else with a SAD are the "crazy" ones for putting that junk in their system.


                    • #11
                      do you only get it with weights?


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by dragonmamma View Post
                        Perhaps you need to remember to breathe? I used to get a bit light-headed when I first started deadlifting, and one time I even burst a blood-vessel in my eye and it turned all red. I had a knowledgeable person check my form, and he pointed out to me that I was holding my breath on my lifts. I had to focus on remembering to breathe through the lifts, and that took care of the problem.
                        I intentionally hold my breath, its called the Valsalva Maneuver. You will adapt as you use it, and it stabilizes your midsection for heavier loads.
                        If your food is fast, maybe you should fast.


                        • #13
                          I suffered from years of severe panic attacks, and recommend using the emotional freedom technique (EFT) to help you resolve the problem. You can do EFT yourself, with an EFT practitioner or in combination with some counseling. You can go to to sign up for a starter package (it's all free) or here's a link to the eft manual pdf.

                          Good Luck!
                          "It's never too late to be what you might have been." George Eliot

                          "Excuses are like asses, some are just bigger than others" Kathryn Martyn Smith