Exercise and anxiety: Treating anxiety with exercise
Exercise can help you to overcome anxiety, especially intense exercise
Exercise has proven to be a useful tool in overcoming anxiety, and the two can be closely linked. Researchers have found that hard physical activity can help you to overcome anxiety.
Clinical trials at the University of Gothenburg have just demonstrated the link between both moderate and strenuous, physical hard exercise and reduced symptoms of anxiety.
They found this to be true in both in chronic and non-chronic cases of anxiety related disorders.
The link between exercise and anxiety
Recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, a study looked at 286 patients. Everyone who participated in the trial had been diagnosed with, and received treatment for anxiety. Researchers recruited them from primary care services in Gothenburg and the northern part of Halland County.
The average age of participants was 39 and seventy percent were women. Half of all participants had lived with anxiety for at least a decade.
Everyone within the trial had had their initial anxiety levels measured, researchers then assigned them to group exercise sessions. These sessions ranged from moderate to strenuous exercise.
Participants of the study performed the exercise sessions regularly for 12 consecutive weeks. Researchers continued to monitor the link between anxiety and exercise.
At the end of the 12 weeks, researchers measured the participants’ levels of anxiety again.
Both those going through moderate and intense exercise had three, one hour long training sessions per week. Professional trainers and physical therapists conducted each session
Exercise sessions included a mixture of cardio and resistance work, with circuit training across 12 stations for 45 minutes. This followed on from an initial warmup. Sessions were ended with a cool down and stretch (as any good workout should).
Researchers defined moderate intensity as sessions designed to raise participants’ heart rates up to about 60% of their maximum efficiency. This is, roughly – very roughly, 220 minus your age
For example, I am 31, so my maximum heart rate should be about 189.
Intensive training saw an attainment of 75% of the participants maximum heart rate. Though the researchers labelled this ‘intense’, it is really not that high.
You should be able to achieve this in any gym-based aerobic class. You will be able to significantly beat it in something more intense, such as a spin or HIIT class.
All scores were regularly validated using the Borg scale. This is a well-known, established rating scale for perceived physical exertion. Participants also wore heart rate monitors throughout.
The results: exercise and anxiety work
Participants experienced far diminished anxiety symptoms. Even when the anxiety was a chronic condition. Researchers measured this against a control group who received advice on physical activity, according to public health recommendations.
A majority of participants went from a starting baseline level of moderate to high anxiety to a low anxiety level following their 12 weeks of exercise. This was consistent across both moderate and high intensity exercise. However, intense exercise saw the greatest benefits.
The study’s first author, Malin Henriksson, a doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg and specialist in general medicine said “there was a significant intensity trend for improvement”.
The more intensely people trained, the greater the improvement to overall anxiety levels. Improvement in terms of anxiety symptoms rose by a factor of 3.62 in the moderate group, against 4.88 in the more intense group.
This chimes with much of the pre-existing literature in the field on exercise and anxiety – and, with the opinions of a great many fitness and mental health professionals. Previous studies into physical exercise have shown clear improvements in symptoms of depression.
However, a clear picture of the link between exercise and anxiety has been lacking until recently. The Gothenburg study is one of the largest, most comprehensive studies to date.
Exercise and anxiety: what this can mean in addiction recovery
Anything that can mitigate anxiety can be of great help during the path of recovery.
Withdrawal from addictive substances is essentially a process of detox. You cut back on the amount of addictive substance, or sometimes cut it out entirely. This can be alcohol, nicotine, or any kind of illicit substance. The process continues until your body can cope without it.
The detox process is usually gradual. Medical staff will lower doses over time to allow your body to adapt. If you go cold turkey, your mind or body could react harmfully, depending on the substance involved.
This process is often be accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, of which anxiety is regularly one. Anxiety can be physical or mental in its origin, or a bit of both. It will present itself as a feelings of unease, fear, and worry. Physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heartbeat, perspiration, shaking, headaches and muscle cramps
Most of us feel the symptoms of anxiety at some point or another. Generally we feel them throughout stressful times in our lives. Examples of stress can be starting a new job, moving house, having children or bereavement.
However, those who suffer from anxiety ( including those who suffer from withdrawal induced anxiety) will often symptoms at a higher intensity, and on a more regular basis. It comes to a point in which their day-to-day lives are disrupted. This then impacts on overall wellbeing..
Anxiety can range from mild to severe during withdrawal. It can also not be present, though most people going through recovery will have felt anxious, to some degree.
Recovery can heighten your perception of anxiety. This may particularly be the case in those who have relied addictive substances for relaxation. Self medicating to mitigate anxiety in the first place. The tension that follows can be quite intense.
Types of anxiety
There are lots of different types of anxiety disorder. Most commonly, people may suffer from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). There won’t be any single source of anxiety with GAD. Those who suffer from it will be anxious about many aspects of their lives, if not all of them.
Then there is social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder focusses on social situations. People who suffer from it experience intense anxiety in and around socialising. It can be triggered in addiction recovery, by apprehension of mingling in crowds. Anxiety can also manifest where addictive substances are being used i.e pubs or parties.
Anxiety is often intensified in those who took addictive substances to deal with social pressure in the first place. Drinking to relax in a crowd is a common example.
The use of exercise and anxiety relief is effective in all cases.
Anxiety induced by withdrawal will generally fit the profile of GAD. Although, symptoms are more broadly directed, and caused by, several aspects of life. However, symptoms of withdrawal will not be long term. Unlike those that suffer from generalised anxiety disorder.
The path to recovery has no end point. Recovery is a continual journey of a daily reprieve, one day at a time. Though this may be a constant struggle, all symptoms should ease over time.
Exercise and anxiety relief
The Gothenburg authors are calling for new, simple treatments for anxiety. Regardless of its cause. There is a proven link between exercise and anxiety levels.
Standard treatments today, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs, are often unduly emotionally invasive and can be lacking.
Pharma drugs have common side effects. Those with anxiety disorders often do not respond to medical treatment. CBT is labour intensive and very specialised, meaning long waiting times and a great demand.
Exercise, however, is accessible to most people, in one form or another. The intensity of exercise can also be easily tailored to individual ability.
My intense workout, that gets my heart rate above 75%, may look very different to someone else. As long as my heart rate is above 75%, however, the relief from anxiety will come.
The story for healthcare professionals
Associate Professor Maria Åberg who headed up the study and is a a specialist in general medicine in Region Västra Götaland’s primary healthcare organisation, said:
“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualised, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment. This should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,”
Exercise works incredibly well, comes with few, if any, negative side effects. Exercise is also incredibly easy and cheap for common public use.
If you struggle with anxiety, induced either by your path of recovery for by anything else, do talk to your healthcare provider. Their input will be invaluable. However, the key might not be in your local pharmacy or health centre. A cheap gym membership and a little willpower might be just what the doctor ordered. Our Wellness Hub offers many professionally led classes on exercise, yoga, nutrition, mindfulness, Breath work and meditation. Its all available for you to use as an when needed.
When trying to overcome anxiety, exercise proves a natural fit for most people.
Author - James
- Effects of physical activity on anxiety https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
- Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2021.10.006