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Exercise can ease anxiety symptoms, study finds

Physical activity should be more frequently prescribed for people with anxiety, researchers say.
The brain’s plasticity changes when a person exercises, one of the reasons why physical activity can reduce anxiety.
The brain’s plasticity changes when a person exercises, one of the reasons why physical activity can reduce anxiety.kali9 / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

January can be filled with anxiety and the desire to lose weight or improve fitness, but one healthy habit can address all of those concerns: regular exercise.

When people diagnosed with anxiety disorders worked out three times a week, they improved their symptoms compared to those who were not physically active, a study published this month in the Journal of Affective Disorders found.

The findings “strengthen the view” that exercise — which is inexpensive, good for overall health and comes with few side effects — can be an effective treatment for people suffering from anxiety and should be more frequently prescribed for them by primary care doctors, the authors wrote.

It’s a good reminder as the national level of anxiety spikes along with the rapid spread of the omicron variant and follows a global rise in anxiety disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic. It could also offer an important option for people who don’t have access to, or don’t want, therapy or anti-anxiety drugs.

A combination of cardio and strength training done for at least 45-60 minutes, three times or more per week, for at least three months offered the maximum benefit when it came to reducing anxiety symptoms, said Malin ​Henriksson, the study’s first author.

“It is a clear improvement from high anxiety levels to low anxiety levels … after 12 weeks,” Henriksson, a researcher at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, told TODAY.

“If you have a mild to moderate anxiety that isn't impacting severely on your life and work ability, you could always try exercise first.”

But people who are already on anti-anxiety medication should always talk with their doctor before they stop taking those drugs, she advised.

'Significant reduction in anxiety'

The study involved 223 adults with anxiety symptoms. Most of the participants, 70%, were women and half had lived with anxiety for more than 10 years.

They were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • A low-intensity group exercise program done three times a week for 12 weeks.
  • A similar program, but done at higher intensity.
  • A control group that didn’t exercise.

The exercise sessions consisted of circuit training and lasted for one hour each, including 10 minutes of warm up and five minutes of cool down. The workouts included cardio moves such as burpees and jumping rope, plus resistance training exercises such as squats and pushups.

Each participant gauged their anxiety using the Beck Anxiety Inventory, a questionnaire to measure symptoms, before and after the 12-week experiment.

It turned out there was a “significant reduction in anxiety” in both exercise groups compared to the control group, the study found. Most participants rated their anxiety symptoms as moderate to severe before the experiment, but those who exercised rated them as mild at the end. The more intensely people worked out, the more their anxiety symptoms improved Henriksson said.

Good tool for 'everyday anxiety'

The study provides “a nice confirmation” that patients with anxiety can experience a decrease in their symptoms with both low- and high-intensity exercise, said Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science at New York University and author of “Good Anxiety.”

“I think exercise is an excellent tool to use for anxiety,” said Suzuki, who was not involved in the new research.

“It becomes even more powerful these days when not just clinical levels of anxiety are high, but what I call everyday anxiety is rising. Moving your body, including increasing regular walking, is an easily accessible and powerful tool to use.”

There may be several reasons why physical activity combats anxiety. The brain’s plasticity changes when a person exercises, and aerobic fitness in particular can have a positive effect on various aspects of brain function and cognition, Henriksson noted.

Regular fitness training has been observed to stimulate new formation of blood vessels, enhance communication between nerve cells and synapses in the brain, and help new formation of nerve cells — especially in the hippocampus, a center for cognitive functions, emotions, memory and learning in the brain, she said.

Increased levels of physical activity could have a beneficial effect on anxiety levels through the release of mood enhancing neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, as well as various growth factors, Suzuki added.

The social aspect of the group fitness in this study and the support of a physiotherapist who attended the exercise sessions could play a therapeutic role, too, the authors noted. So another lesson may be to seek out a workout buddy or trainer.

“I think that it is harder for a person with anxiety to motivate themselves to exercise alone compared with the group training where someone is waiting for you at a predetermined time,” Henriksson said.

“You could always talk with a physiotherapist first for some recommendations on which exercise or activity could (be a best) fit for you.”