Exercise has a variety of health benefits, but can exercise be associated with a reduced risk of anxiety disorders?
Regular exercise can positively affect physical health by improving cardiovascular and lung health, building lean muscle mass and strong bones, and promoting healthy weight management.
Studies suggest that daily physical activity may help reduce the risk of certain chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and potentially certain cancers.1 In order to reap these benefits, the World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity weekly.2
Exercise and mental health
Physical activity may also be associated with a variety of mental health benefits; exercise can increase blood circulation to the brain and influence the body’s stress response.3 This, in turn, could potentially be associated with changes such as a reduction in stress and improved mood.3,4
Exercising in groups also encourages social interaction, which is important for mental health.3 Previous studies suggest that exercise may be associated with decreased rates of depression as well as symptom improvement in those with depression.2,5
With about ten percent of the global population estimated to have an anxiety disorder, anxiety disorders are common, and their symptoms can be difficult to manage.6,7 Since exercise may be associated with positive mental health changes, researchers investigated whether exercise could also be associated with decreased anxiety. A large population-level study was done in Sweden, and the findings were published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.6
The study group included 395,370 Swedish individuals, consisting of 62% men and 38% women, with a median age of 36 years.6 Half of the participants were registered skiers in Vasoloppet, which is a long-distance cross-country ski race that has a maximum distance of 90 kilometres.6
The other half were Swedish non-skiers chosen from the Swedish National Patient Registry, which includes all hospital diagnoses in Sweden from 1987. People with the following diagnoses in both groups were excluded from the study: any type of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, meningitis, epilepsy, psychiatric disorders, and any severe disease that could prevent them from participating in the race, such as cancer or lung disease.6 This was done to minimize bias and make the study results as accurate as possible, and all participants were surveyed for an average of ten years.
Impact of exercise on anxiety disorders
The skiers had a 62% lower risk of getting diagnosed with anxiety disorders within the study period compared to non-skiers, and this effect was observed in both men and women.6 This could potentially suggest that physical activity such as skiing may be associated with a decreased risk of being diagnosed with anxiety disorders; however, more research is needed to confirm this relationship.
There are some limitations to the study; for example, it only measures the number of participants receiving hospital diagnoses of anxiety disorders. This excludes patients receiving diagnoses in primary care clinics and doctors’ offices, as well as those without an official diagnosis. Moreover, this study only investigates long-distance skiers in Sweden rather than athletes in other sports and countries, and this could affect how well the study group mirrors the general population. More studies should be done that account for these potential limiting factors.
- Anderson, E., Durstine, L. (2019). Physical activity, exercise, and chronic diseases: A brief review. Sports Medicine and Health Science 1(1): 3-10. Doi: 10.1016/j.smhs.2019.08.006.
- World Health Organization Newsroom (2020, November 26). Physical Activity. World Health Organization. Accessed 2021, September 14, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity
- Guszkowska, M. (2004). [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood] (translated). Psychiatr Pol 38(4): 611-620. Accessed 2021, September 20, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15518309/
- Sharma, S., Madaan, V., Petty, F. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry 8(2): 106. Doi: 10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a
- Craft, L.L., Perna, F.M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry 6(3): 104-111. Doi: 10.4088/pcc.v06n0301
- Svensson, M., Brundin, L., Erhardt, S., et al (2021, September 10). Physical Activity Is Associated With Lower Long-Term Incidence of Anxiety in a Population-Based, Large-Scale Study. Front Psychiatry. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.714014
- Baxter, A.J., Scott, K.M., Vos, T., et al (2013). Global prevalence of anxiety disorders: a systematic review and meta-regression. Psychol Med 43(5): 897-910. Doi: 10.1017/S003329171200147X.
- Image by Stan Petersen from Pixabay