Physical activity in the prevention and treatment of anxiety

Anxiety currently affects up to 10% of the global population, and is twice as prevalent in females than males. The onset of anxiety can start in early life, and develop through the years into early adulthood. Sadly, up to half of patients do not receive enough symptom-free relief when treated with first-line treatments, such as medication or cognitive-behavioural therapy. Anxiety disorders can go on to cause disability and economic burden to many if left untreated.

Physical activity has been shown to help both prevent anxiety and the symptoms associated with the disorder.

A study conducted by Svensson, M. et al. used an observational study involving 395,369 individuals over a 21-year period investigating whether ultralong-distance cross-country ski racing lowered the risk of developing anxiety. Skiers in the race and matched non-skiers from the general population were studied after participation in the race.

The skiers had a significantly lower risk of developing anxiety in follow-up compared with the non-skiers. For women, higher physical performance was associated with an increased risk of anxiety compared to the slower skiing women. For men, there was no difference between performance groups and the risk of anxiety. Overall, the skiers had a 60% lower risk of developing anxiety, and previous studies have attributed low cardiovascular fitness to a higher risk of anxiety disorder.

Higher levels of physical activity has shown to display a lower cortisol response, as well as reducing inflammation and oxidative stress which are all indicators of lower levels of anxiety. Physical activity is a key recommendation in the prevention and management of anxiety and should be considered a front-line intervention.

Svensson, M. et al. (2021). Physical activity is associated with lower longer-term incidence of anxiety in a population-based large-scale study. Front. Psychiatry.