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Can exercise prevent anxiety disorders?

There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting exercise can help with anxiety. Now scientific research too is trying to find out

Can exercise help stave off anxiety?
Can exercise help stave off anxiety? (Istockphoto)

At the height of the deadly second wave of the covid-19 pandemic, apart from the very real danger of contracting the virus, the other, less-examined trend was the toll that this was taking on people’s mental health. The unrelenting bad news caused anxiety, and this was exacerbated by the fact that everyone knew of people who had died of covid-19. The fear of the pandemic hit home, and caused anxiety and depression in many.

Mental health cannot be dealt with easily, and ideally needs long-term care and professional attention. However, plenty of people at the time took to exercising everyday to stave off feelings of helplessness. Especially at the time of a health crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested that exercising gave people a semblance of agency regarding their health, and this helped.

Also Read: Can exercising help protect your mental health?

A story published in May by Lounge writer Shrenik Avlani looked at the ways that people were coping. Some, like 28-year-old Tanya Rocque, took to HIIT, MMA and aerial yoga to “stay sane”, as she put it. Others, like 34-year-old businessman Shahid Lokhandwala, created a make-shift home gym and sought comfort in the daily routine of working out. 

New research published in the journal Frontiers In Psychiatry supports this anecdotal evidence that exercise can help stave off anxiety. Or even developing anxiety in the first place. Swedish researchers have found that people leading an active lifestyle are less prone to developing anxiety disorders. 

Also Read: Can exercising boost your creativity?

“We found that the group with a more physically active lifestyle had an almost 60 per cent lower risk of developing anxiety disorders over a follow-up period of up to 21 years,” said lead author Martine Svensson from the Department of Experimental Medical Science at Lund University, Sweden. “This association between a physically active lifestyle and a lower risk of anxiety was seen in both men and women,” Svensson added. The study is based on data collected from nearly 400,000 people in Sweden.

However, the researchers also found that the effects of this vary between genders. The highest performing group of female athletes in the study reported almost double the risk of developing anxiety disorders than their low performance counterparts. While this might have much to do with the anxiety to excel at sports, this is an area that would require further research. But one thing is for sure: exercise does help. And that’s reason enough to adopt a physically active lifestyle.

Also Read: How to grow old with your fitness intact

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