About one in ten people live with anxiety disorders. Anxiety only increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the continued uncertainty of life doesn’t aid people who already struggle with mental health. A recent Gallup poll reported that 80% of American workers suffered from some sort of work anxiety because of the pandemic. Is there a way to combat this anxiety or do people just have to deal with it?
The relationship between exercise and reduced anxiety levels is not breaking news. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, dancing, and more help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, increases blood circulation to the brain. This influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to experience reduced reactivity to stress. It’s a physiological influence that involves the HPA axis with other regions of the brain.
New Study Suggests Exercise Significantly Reduces Anxiety Risk
A research team from Sweden says that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing anxiety by almost 60%. Research about exercise’s impact on anxiety symptoms exists, but there is little research about the impact of dose and intensity in regards to exercise reducing the risk of developing anxiety disorders.
The new study monitored athletes that took part in the world’s largest long-distance, cross-country ski race between 1989 and 2010. The researchers found that people who participated had a much lower risk of developing anxiety compared to non-skiers during that same time period. There were nearly 400,000 people from both sexes involved in the study, making it one of the largest epidemiology studies ever.
Researchers found that the more physically active group experienced a 60% lower risk of developing anxiety disorders. Those results are according to a follow up period of up to 21 years. The findings were consistent between both men and women. Exercise improves mental health by improving cognitive function, self-esteem, and mood. In other studies, regular exercise also proved to increase energy, reduce stress, improve endurance, increase sexual interest, and regulate mood.
Exercise In Women
According to the study, there was a clear distinction between exercise performance level and the risk of developing anxiety between male and female participants. For example, a male skier’s physical performance did not affect the risk of anxiety development. The highest performing group of female skiers, however, experienced a two-time greater risk of developing disorders than the group that performed at the lowest level of physical activity.
The risk of anxiety development across active female participants was much lower compared to inactive women in the general population. Researchers from the team also add that these findings cover uncharted waters of scientific research. Nearly all previous studies focused on depression or mental illness, as opposed to focusing on anxiety disorders. Additionally, previous studies primarily focused on men in much smaller numbers. There was also no follow-up data to track the long-term effects of physical activity in relation to mental well-being.
What Do The Findings Suggest?
It’s clear that the research suggests that the relationship between exercise and anxiety symptoms may not be linear. Genetics, personality traits, or physiological factors can influence anxiety symptoms and exercise behaviors. Researchers did not investigate those factors in the course of this study,. Studies that discover the differences between the exercise behaviors in men and women and the risk of anxiety development are still necessary.
Exercise Benefits Mental Health
The bottom line is that exercise, not simply long-distance or cross-country skiing, can benefit mental health and keep anxiety at bay. Some research shows that a simple walk in nature helps to reduce stress and boost emotional well-being. Additionally, these walks can help to recalibrate a fatigued brain, and people often perform better, cognitively speaking, after a walk in a “greener space.” Elevating the heart rate with more intense workouts can also hit the reset button and clear the head. High intensity interval workouts or even walking up and down the stairs can recharge the batteries and lead to better mental wellness.