People suffering from chronic anxiety — and those who hope to avoid it — may find some calm by ramping up their physical activity.

The Evidence

Scientists led by researchers at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg recruited 286 patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders — about half of whom had had the condition for 10 years or more — and assigned 149 participants to one-hour workout sessions of varying intensity three times a week for 12 weeks. Compared with a control group that didn’t exercise, most of those who worked out reported lower levels of anxiety symptoms when the study concluded.

And the relative intensity of the workout sessions seemed to make a difference. “There was a significant intensity trend for improvement,” notes doctoral student Malin Henriksson, who led the study. “That is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved.”

That might explain why competitors in Sweden’s legendary Vasaloppet cross-country skiing event tend to stay calmer than most. The annual races, ranging from 30 to 90 kilometers, attract thousands of skiers every year, an extremely fit cohort researchers used in another recent study to measure the ability of exercise to fend off anxiety issues.

As Gretchen Reynolds reports in the New York Times, a team led by Tomas Deierborg, PhD, collected information from nearly 200,000 Swedes who participated in one of the races between 1989 and 2010 and then cross-checked that data with the Swedish National ­Patient Register to see how many of them had received a diagnosis of clinical anxiety disorder in the 10 to 21 years following their race. Compared with the same number of randomly selected Swedes who did not ski the Vasaloppet, the skiers had about a 60 percent lower risk of developing the disorder.

How much do you need?

But you don’t have to match the intensity of these elite skiers to cultivate some calm, Deierborg says. Even 30 minutes of brisk walking has “good effects on your mental health.”

This article was written by deputy editor Craig Cox and originally appeared as “Easing Anxiety With Exercise” in the July/August 2022 issue of Experience Life.

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