Anxiety disorders are estimated to affect around 10 percent of the worldwide population and have been found to be twice as prevalent in women compared to men. While it is known that physical exercise can dramatically reduce the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders, not much is known about the specific level of fitness or the frequency of exercise that is needed to produce these benefits.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden analyzed data from almost 400,000 people across both sexes, comparing those who took part in the world’s largest long-distance cross-country ski race (Vasaloppet) with those who did not.
The results showed that those who took part in the race between 1989 and 2010 demonstrated a “significantly lower risk” of developing anxiety disorders compared to those who did not participate during the same time period.
“We found that the group with a more physically active lifestyle had an almost 60 percent lower risk of developing anxiety disorders over a follow-up period of up to 21 years,” said study lead author Martine Svensson and principal investigator Tomas Deierborg. “This association between a physically active lifestyle and a lower risk of anxiety was seen in both men and women.”
However, a noticeable difference was identified between male and female skiers when it came to exercise performance levels and the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
The physical performance of male skiers did not appear to affect the risk of developing anxiety, yet the highest performing female skiers still had almost double the risk than males who had the lowest performance levels. However, the researchers concluded that the total risk of getting anxiety among high-performing women was still lower compared to the more physically inactive women in the general population.
Surprisingly, the study has ultimately concluded that there is a correlation between physical exercise performance and the risk for anxiety disorders in women. “Our results suggest that the relation between symptoms of anxiety and exercise behavior may not be linear,” said Svensson.
Whilst this research initially appears to suggest that skiing, in particular, can play an important role in preventing anxiety disorders, Svensson and Deierborg explain that it is not that simple. “We think this cohort of cross-country skiers is a good proxy for an active lifestyle, there could also be a component of being more outdoors among skiers,” they said.
“Studies focusing on specific sports may find slightly different results and magnitudes of the associations, but this is most likely due to other important factors that affect mental health and which you cannot easily control in research analysis.”
The research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.