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Physical exercise reduces chronic anxiety better than drugs

A new study led by the University of Gothenburg has found that both moderate and strenuous physical exercise are highly effective at alleviating both acute and chronic anxiety. According to scientists, structured physical activity is better for treating anxiety than drugs or even psychological or psychiatric therapy.

The scientists recruited 286 patients with anxiety disorders from primary care services in Gothenburg and the northern part of the Halland County on the western coast of Sweden. The average age of the participants was 39, and 70 percent of them were women. Almost half of them had lived with anxiety for over 10 years. 

The participants were assigned to 60-minutes group exercise sessions, either moderate or strenuous, three times per week, for a total of 12 weeks. Afterwards, they needed to report the severity of their anxiety symptoms, including nervousness, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and trembling.

The results indicate that both moderate and strenuous physical exercise are highly effective in mitigating anxiety symptoms, even in the case when patients struggled with chronic anxiety disorders.

“A 12-week group exercise program proved effective for patients with anxiety syndromes in primary care,” wrote the study authors. “These findings strengthen the view of physical exercise as an effective treatment and could be more frequently made available in clinical practice for persons with anxiety issues.”

The researchers found that the more intense the training sessions were, the more they lowered participants’ anxiety levels. “There was a significant intensity trend for improvement – that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” explained study lead author Malin Henriksson, a doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg.  

Current mainstream treatments of anxiety include the use of psychotropic drugs, generally combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. However, such treatments are quite expensive and the drugs have numerous side effects. Thus, the alternative proposed by the University of Gothenburg’s research team may prove to be more effective.

“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualised, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe,” said study senior author Maria Åberg, a specialist physician and senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg. “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.” 

The study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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