Exercising for OCD management

“How exercising with OCD taught me new coping mechanisms”

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One in 100 UK adults currently lives with an OCD diagnosis – it’s not an uncommon condition. And while medication and therapy should be primary sources of help, writer Delilah Gray explains how exercise has helped to calm her symptoms. 

I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) when I was seven. Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to control the urge to make repetitive motions in order to relieve overwhelming stress. The relief I get from doing certain movements never lasts long but the stress and anxiety build-up can be totally overwhelming.

Exercise has always been something that I’ve wanted to do but struggled with; my mind doesn’t play ball with my body. During lockdown, however, I had a chance to experiment with movement and finally found a way of exercising that really has given me peace of mind.

Managing ever-changing OCD symptoms

According to the International OCD Foundation, most children are diagnosed between the ages of eight and 12, with 1 in 200 adolescents having OCD. OCD never goes away and as such, around one in 100 adults are currently living with an OCD diagnosis in the UK. 

Of course, not all OCD journeys are the same; how it presents itself depends entirely on the person. My symptoms seem to change as I get older. One year, I needed to jump nine times in the doorway before entering a room, the next, I had to chew a certain number of times. Whatever the specific habit, however, the routines stayed the same: performing a compulsion to avoid something bad from happening. 

Logically, I know that performing these tasks has no correlation to any external situation, but OCD sends anxiety into such overdrive that when you’re in the grip of an episode, logic doesn’t factor.

Over the years, I’ve tried everything to relieve my OCD. Medication has helped a little (and for many people, it’s a lifesaver), but for me, it’s not enough. I’ve tried meditation apps, different diets, walks outside – nothing has worked. 

I tried pilates, yoga, kickboxing… eventually losing interest in all of it. My dream has been to be like the fitness fans online who manage to do 100 squat challenges and live a healthy, strong life.

Strength training versus cardio

My opportunity came during lockdown, after I’d moved in with my ultra-sporty partner. When you’re locked in with someone in a one-bedroom apartment, you quickly pick up their habits. After a little while of watching him work out, I decided that it was time to join in.

We got started with simple weights and a stretching workout. As someone who had spent the start of the pandemic moving from the bedroom to the sofa and back again, exercise came as something of a shock; I was almost instantly out of breath. 

Because OCD is a complex beast, it would have been naive to think that a few deadlifts would change everything and, indeed, this regime was just another thing that didn’t stick. It helped almost everything but my mental health. Mind over body? No, my body was screaming at my mind to shut up. My initial instinct was to give up, but my partner wouldn’t allow it. He saw how bad my mental health was and so persisted in helping me try new ways of moving.

After a few weeks, we finally found something that felt good: cardio. I’d always thought of running and walking as total torture but as soon as I gave them a go, I couldn’t get enough of them. I wanted to walk, run, and hike everywhere I could.

After a while, I found that cardio was helping me to manage my OCD far better than I used to. Increasingly, I had the confidence and courage to stop my compulsions.

Cardio is known to soothe symptoms

To be clear, this experience may not be the case for other people. The thing about OCD is that it’s highly personal; cardio worked for me but it may have a totally different effect on someone else. However, we do know that exercise can be beneficial in managing the condition, says Dr Thomas DiBlasi, assistant professor at St Joseph’s College, New York.

He tells Stylist: “Exercise alone is an effective intervention in reducing OCD severity. Of course, the most effective treatment is exposure and response prevention (a form of CBT), but I often recommend exercise besides [that].” 

Cardio, in particular, can be helpful, he says: “Typically, aerobic exercise is best for OCD and mood regulation.” 

That’s backed up by a 2019 study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, that found that walkers, cyclists and other cardio-lovers reported “significantly higher levels of immediate improvement” after jumping on a treadmill or stationary bike, compared to a group who only received health counselling.

4 tips for exercising with OCD

How then can people living with OCD start cardio training, safely? We asked three experts for their tips on moving with the condition:

  1. Create a routine: Psychologist Anastasia B, who is currently working with MEDivi, suggests “making a workout routine for yourself and building up your stamina with time. This will give your brain a signal of productive performance and boost your esteem.” She also advises creating a sleep schedule and sticking to it for “better brain health. Follow your circadian rhythm because that is how your body is built.”
  2. Start small: “Even five minutes of a moderate-intensity workout decreases your stress levels and OCD,” explains Amelia Alvin, a practising psychiatrist at Mango Clinic. “However, working out for 25-30 minutes five times a week is highly advised to control your symptoms of OCD.”
  3. Be regular: Alvin also says that regular exercise is key. By committing to a daily or weekly exercise regime, “you can achieve faster and longer-lasting recovery from OCD symptoms.”
  4. Move gently: Dr Brian Wind, chief clinical officer for Journey Pure, also recommends starting with “gentle exercises like yoga… if you have been inactive.”

For more information on OCD, visit the mental health charity Mind. Always talk to your GP about any mental health concerns and new regimes that you might want to try.

For more first-person features, healthy recipes and workout tips, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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