Moderate and intense physical exercise can significantly dampen anxiety, even in cases where it is caused by a chronic disorder, according to new research.
Exercise has been receiving a lot of attention from researchers interested in mental health. The positive effect physical exercise can have on those grappling with depression is well-known. However, the way it links with anxiety disorders is far less understood.
New research from the University of Gothenburg comes to improve our understanding of the interplay between these two factors. According to the findings, moderate and demanding physical exercise can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety even in the case of chronic disorders. These results give cause for hope for patients struggling with anxiety disorders around the world, offering an accessible (and healthy) option for them to self-manage what can quickly become a debilitating burden. It also reminds those who are not struggling with such disorders of the importance of keeping physically active not just for our bodies, but our minds as well.
Mens sana in corpore sano
“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely [the participants] exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” states Malin Henriksson, doctoral student at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and the study’s first author.
The team worked with 286 persons with anxiety syndrome who were recruited from primary care services in Gothenburg and Halland County, Sweden. Their average age was 39, and 70% were women. Half of these participants had been diagnosed with anxiety syndrome for at least 10 years.
They were randomly assigned to group exercise sessions for 12 weeks, consisting of either moderate or strenuous activity. A control group was also used, and its members received advice on physical activity adhering to public health recommendations but were not placed in any of the exercise programs.
Exercise regimes consisted of one-hour training sessions three times per week with supervision from a physical therapist. They included both cardio and strength training. Each session included a warmup followed by a 45-minute training interval and a cooldown period. Intense training was defined as the participants reaching 75% of maximum heart rate during the sessions. Light and moderate exercise was defined as the participants reaching 60% of their maximum heart rate. These were confirmed using heart rate monitors.
Following the 12 week period, their anxiety symptoms were re-assessed. This revealed that their symptoms were lessened across the board, even in cases of chronic anxiety conditions. Most of the participants in the exercise groups went down from a baseline level of “high anxiety” to a “low anxiety” level following the study. Those who followed relatively low-intensity exercise regimes were 3.6 times more likely to see an improvement in their symptoms compared to controls. Those who exercised at a higher intensity were almost 5 times more likely to see improvements compared to controls.
The findings are important as this is one of the largest studies on the topic to date. They provide reliable evidence that physical exercise can be used alongside today’s standard treatments for anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs — to help patients manage their symptoms. Some of the key advantages of this approach include it being accessible to the vast majority of patients and the lack of side effects, which are common with psychotropic drugs.
“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment that should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,” says Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy and corresponding author of the study.
The paper “Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.