Both low and high-intensity exercise can significantly alleviate anxiety, according to a new study in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The research followed 286 people with anxiety syndrome as they participated in regular workouts over a 12-week period, and found that while more strenuous activity produced greater reductions in symptoms, even gentle exercise generated a notable improvement in long-term sufferers.
After recruiting participants from primary care settings in Sweden, the study authors randomly assigned each individual to either a low or high-intensity workout regime, or a control group. Those in the exercise groups took part in guided workouts three times a week, while controls were not invited to any sessions but received standard public health advice regarding physical activity at home.
Each workout lasted for one hour, with low-intensity training designed to increase participants’ heart rates to 60 percent of their maximum, while those in the high-intensity group reached 75 percent of their maximum heart rate.
At the end of the 12-week study period, those in the low-intensity exercise group were 3.62 times more likely than controls to have experienced a reduction in their anxiety scores. For those in the high-intensity group, the chances of improvement were 4.88 times greater than controls. Importantly, these results were not proportional to reductions in depression, indicating that exercise may help to alleviate anxiety by a mechanism that is independent of its anti-depressant effect.
Commenting on these findings, study author Malin Henriksson explained in a statement that “there was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved.”
Exactly how exercise produces these benefits is not fully understood, although the researchers propose a number of hypotheses that may be worthy of further investigation. For instance, they speculate that the social aspect of group workouts may be partially responsible for the observed reduction in symptoms, as many of those involved in the study were socially withdrawn and may therefore have found contact with other group members therapeutic.
Additionally, they suggest that exercise may stimulate the release of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which is known to promote neuroplasticity and has been shown to attenuate anxiety in mice.
While these potential pathways remain unconfirmed, the researchers say that their results may be of huge significance to both healthcare professionals and patients suffering with anxiety. “Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe,” said study author Maria Åberg.
“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.”