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Exercise alleviates the symptoms of anxiety

Exercise, both moderate and strenuous, is known to help alleviate the symptoms of depression. Now, scientists from the University of Gothenburg have also demonstrated the beneficial effects of exercise on anxiety.

For the investigation, 286 patients with anxiety syndrome took part in various exercise programs. The patients, recruited from primary care services in Gothenburg and the northern part of Halland County, were randomly assigned to exercise groups where different intensities of exercise were required. 

Patients took part in hour-long sessions of either moderate or strenuous exercise, three times a week. In addition, a control group of patients attended hour-long counseling sessions where they received advice on physical activity according to public health recommendations.

The results indicate that symptoms of anxiety were significantly reduced by partaking in exercise, even when the anxiety was a chronic condition. Most individuals in the treatment groups dropped from a baseline level of moderate or high anxiety to a low anxiety level by the end of the 12-week program. 

For those who exercised at a relatively low intensity, the chance of improvement in anxiety symptoms rose by a factor of 3.62. The corresponding factor for those who engaged in high intensity exercise was 4.88. 

“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement – that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” explained study first author Malin Henriksson.

Both cardio (aerobic) and strength training were given during the 60-minute exercise sessions. A warmup was followed by circuit training that included 12 stations and lasted around 45 minutes. The sessions ended with a cooldown and stretching.  Patients who exercised at a moderate level aimed to reach about 60 percent of their maximum heart rate, while patients in the strenuous training session aimed to attain 75 percent of their maximum heart rate. 

In the past, anxiety disorder has been routinely treated using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs. However, these drugs commonly have side effects, and patients with anxiety disorders frequently do not respond to this medical treatment. This study provides an alternative method of alleviating symptoms of anxiety, even in patients who have suffered from anxiety for more than ten years.

The present study was led by Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy, specialist in general medicine in Region Västra Götaland’s primary healthcare organization.

“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,” said Professor Åberg.

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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