Mental health experts have for years viewed physical activity as a “promising strategy” to help prevent anxiety – which affects up to 10% of people worldwide – or reduce its symptoms.
However, the authors of the present study wrote, previous research has not been conclusive on the impact of the amount or intensity of exercise or level of fitness on the risk of developing anxiety disorders. , and how these relationships might differ between men and women.
Some researchers have also proposed that any association between high levels of physical activity and a lower risk of anxiety disorder could be due to undiagnosed anxiety symptoms preventing vulnerable people from engaging in physical activity.
The authors compared 197,685 Swedes who competed in Vasaloppet – the world’s largest long-distance ski race at 56 miles (90 kilometers) in length – between 1989 and 2010, with 197,684 adults who had similar health profiles but were not skiers.
All of the participants were in relatively good health – they had no serious illness or psychiatric disorders, but the skiers in Vasaloppet generally exercised more in their free time, smoked less, ate healthier and had a death rate. lower than non-skiers. Participation in Vasaloppet requires long-term exercise in preparation for the race.
After a median follow-up period of 10 years, a total of 1649 participants were diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Compared to non-skiers, skiers had an approximately 60% lower risk of being diagnosed with anxiety disorders, study author Martina Svensson said, regardless of education level, age and location. sex.
Differences between female and male skiers
The time it took for skiers to complete the race – which the authors used as a measure of physical performance – did not impact skiers’ risk of anxiety disorders.
Among the female skiers, however, “physically well-performing women had an almost doubled risk of developing anxiety compared to lower-performing women,” said Svensson, an associate researcher at the University of Neuroinflammation Experimental Lab, via email. Lund in Sweden.
Despite these results in fast skiers, “the total risk of anxiety among these high performing women was still lower than that of more physically inactive women in the general population,” said Svensson. “It appears that both sexes benefit from physical activity, although the optimal level may differ between men and women. The factors behind these differences need to be further investigated.”
Why skiers had a lower risk of anxiety
The authors of the new study have raised “several potential explanations that make sense,” said James Maddux, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at George Mason University in Virginia, by email. Maddux was not involved in the study.
“Exercise can be a mental distraction from worrying thoughts. We also know that being in nature generally improves our sense of well-being, so exercise that takes place outdoors, such as skiing in the outdoors. this study should be particularly useful, ”said Maddux, who is also a senior researcher at the university’s Center for the Advancement of Well-being. “Engaging in a period of exercise can lead to a sense of accomplishment and a greater sense of self-efficacy (or self-confidence) which can lead to decreased anxiety.”
Plus, exercise may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which have been linked to anxiety. Finally, exercise induces a brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (a key molecule involved in learning and memory-related changes) that is lower in people with anxiety disorders and in women, even after exercise.
The study has other limitations requiring future research, including the lack of in-depth knowledge about the physical activity levels of non-skiers and the individual characteristics that may have influenced exercise engagement and vulnerability to physical activity. anxiety disorders, wrote the authors. The study also lacked racial and ethnic diversity.