Meds not needed: For anxiety sufferers, exercise proves to be a powerfully effective treatment

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — People who suffer from anxiety know that its effects can plague them for years, if not for much of their lives. Of course, there’s no simple remedy to entirely get rid of anxious thoughts and feelings, but recent research shows that regularly exercising for at least three months can greatly reduce anxiety levels among patients.

Current therapies for anxiety include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can take lengthy amounts of time, and psychotropic medications that often produce adverse effects.  Hoping to provide better therapeutic options, researchers from The University of Gothenburg conducted a study that demonstrates how simple exercise can effectively minimize symptoms of anxiety. This research gives those with the condition a safer and quicker treatment option for their disorder.

Physical activity has been found in earlier research to reduce the symptoms of depression. However, a comprehensive overview of how fitness affects individuals with anxiety has not yet been established. “Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe,” says study lead and corresponding author Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy, in a statement.

Two hundred and eighty-six individuals with anxiety syndrome were chosen from medical centers in Sweden for the research, which was regarded as one of the biggest ever conducted on the subject. About half of the participants had suffered from anxiety for 10 years or more. The average age was 39, and 70% of the participants were female.

Participants were randomly allocated to mild or vigorous group exercise classes for a period of three months. In comparison to a control set that got guidance on physical exercise based on public health guidelines, the findings demonstrate that their symptoms were dramatically reduced even when the illness was severe.

Anxiety levels dropped from moderate to low following the three-month program for the majority of participants. Those who trained at a lower intensity were 3.62 times more likely to improve their anxiety symptoms. Those who trained at a greater intensity were 4.88 times more likely to improve their anxiety symptoms.  “There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” notes the study’s first author, Malin Henriksson, a doctoral student at the Sahlgrenska Academy and a specialist in general medicine.

A physical therapist supervised one-hour workouts for both groups three times per week. The workouts incorporated both cardiovascular and weight training. The 45-minute sessions began with a warmup, continued with circular exercise at 12 locations, and concluded with stretching and cooling.

Those in the moderate-intensity training groups were expected to attain 60% of their max heart rate, which is considered mild to intermediate intensity. This level of effort was regarded as high in the group that exercised more vigorously, which aimed to reach 75% of their maximal heart rate.

“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 Åberg.

This study is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.