If you’re feeling anxious, relief may be closer at hand than you think.
Researchers from the University of Gothenburg have found evidence that exercise is helpful for people with anxiety, even if it’s chronic. However, the most benefits came from moderate to strenuous exercise. In one of the most comprehensive and inclusive studies connecting exercise and anxiety, almost 300 adults with anxiety followed exercise programs for 12 weeks.
All of the participants had been diagnosed with anxiety, and up to half of the participants had received this diagnosis at least ten years earlier. They were divided into groups who were asked to exercise with a physical therapist for an hour three times weekly at varying intensities of moderate or strenuous. Each group practiced a combination of strength training, cardio, and proper stretching techniques.
The group which exercised at the lowest intensity rate found that their anxiety symptoms improved by 3.62, but the group working out harder improved their symptoms by 4.88. The higher-intensity exercisers achieved 75% max heart rate while the moderate intensity exercisers aimed for 60% max heart rate.
With chronic anxiety, it’s hard to feel like things are making a difference the longer someone is living with it; but both moderate and strenuous exercise can make a significant difference! Researchers in the study find that the difference between symptom improvement between the moderate and strenuous groups are marginal, so both intensities can be helpful. They also mention that people with chronic anxiety may not be very physically active at their baseline, so they hypothesize that’s why even the lowest activity group resulted in such significant improvements.
The researchers in the study believe that improving strength is not as necessary for relieving symptoms of anxiety as the therapeutic social interaction of a trainer or physical therapist. They point to previous animal studies which have found exercise improves the brain’s neuroplasticity as a possible cause for improvement in anxiety.
Guided and reliable physical exercise with a group or with a trainer can be a powerful tool in the fight against anxiety, at whatever intensity you’re able to do.
Malin Henriksson, Alexander Wall, Jenny Nyberg, et al. Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2022; 297: 26 DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2021.10.006