LUND, Sweden — Anxiety disorders  – which typically develop early in a person’s life – affect around one in 10 people and are twice as common in women compared to men. According to new research, regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing anxiety by almost 60 percent.

A team from Sweden says that one of the most common suggestions put forward as a way to improve well-being is to stay physically active, whether it be by walking or playing a team sport. While exercise is a promising strategy for the treatment of anxiety, study authors say there is little research into the impact of exercise dose, intensity, or physical fitness level on the risk of developing anxiety disorders.

The new study discovered that people who took part in the world’s largest long-distance cross-country ski race between 1989 and 2010 had a “significantly lower risk” of developing anxiety compared to non-skiers during the same period. The team examined from almost 400,000 people in one of the largest ever epidemiology studies across both sexes.

“We found that the group with a more physically active lifestyle had an almost 60% lower risk of developing anxiety disorders over a follow-up period of up to 21 years. This association between a physically active lifestyle and a lower risk of anxiety was seen in both men and women,” says first author Martine Svensson of Lund University in a media release.

Exercise has bigger implications for women

However, the research team found a noticeable difference in exercise performance level the risk of developing anxiety between male and female skiers. While a male skier’s physical performance did not appear to affect the risk of developing anxiety, the highest performing group among female skiers had almost double the risk of developing anxiety disorders compared to the group which was physically active at a lower performance level.

“Importantly, the total risk of getting anxiety among high-performing women was still lower compared to the more physically inactive women the general population,” reports principal investigator Professor Tomas Deierborg, head of Lund’s Department of Experimental Medical Science.

The team adds that their findings cover relatively uncharted territory for scientific research, as most previous studies focused on depression or mental illness as opposed to specifically diagnosed anxiety disorders. They explain that some of the largest studies on the topic only included men, were much smaller in sample size, and had either limited or no follow-up data to track the long-term effects of physical activity on mental well-being. Study authors note the surprising discovery of an association between physical performance and the risk for anxiety disorders in women emphasizes the scientific importance of their findings for follow-up research.

“Our results suggest that the relation between symptoms of anxiety and exercise behavior may not be linear. Exercise behaviors and anxiety symptoms are likely to be affected by genetics, psychological factors, and personality traits, confounders that were not possible to investigate in our cohort. Studies investigating the driving factors behind these differences between men and women when it comes to extreme exercise behaviors and how it affects the development of anxiety are needed,” adds Svensson.

Any kind of activity can benefit mental health

Researchers say their findings do not mean that skiing, in particular, can play an important role in keeping anxiety at bay, as opposed to any other form of exercise, given that previous studies have also shown the benefits of keeping fit on mental health. “We think this cohort of cross-country skiers is a good proxy for an active lifestyle, but there could also be a component of being more outdoors among skiers. 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,” Prof. Deierborg concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Southwest News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.
Healthy eating and exercise