Aerobic exercise has long been recognized as an important adjunct to prevention and management of mental illness, especially mood disorders, depression and anxiety. A new study from Sweden looks at almost 200,000 people who participated in cross-country ski racing there, and found that participants (whom researchers considered a “proxy” for physically active people generally) show a much reduced incidence of clinical anxiety disorder, for as long as 10-20 years after participating in the races.
Compared with a control group selected from among Swedish non-skiers, they found a nearly 50% reduction in the risk of developing anxiety, including from those who had participated as long as 20 years earlier. The highest risk of anxiety (still lower than the control group) was measured among female racers who had the best finishing scores. This finding led researchers to caution that exercise itself is important, not competition.
Studies show positive effects of exercise on mood
MoodSurfing has reported on earlier studied that also showed strong linkage between exercise and depression and anxiety, however this recent study is much bigger and therefore more dependable than studies that typically look at smaller groups of people. Crucially, the researchers do not conclude that cross-country skiing is the important factor. They emphasize that the World Health Organization’s recommendations for about 30 minutes of brisk walking or similar activity on most days is enough for a good effect on mental health.
Still, the results do not prove that exercise protects against anxiety, only that there is a tendency for more active people to have more positive moods overall. Also, there is still little understanding of exactly how exercise reduces anxiety, only that some physiological effect must be in play. It is clear that exercise has powerful biological effects. Those who are physically active have changes in the activity of many genes as well as increased neuronal growth.
Overall, the available evidence suggests that a physically active lifestyle has a strong effect on anxiety and depression, and we should all be encouraged to get up off the couch and move around more often.
If you are ready to make the change but running into roadblocks we have some tips.
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