Exercise, Medical News, Mood disorders, Neurocognitive disorders, Neuroscience, World health

Physical exercise associated with lower long-term incidence of anxiety

Over the course of a multidecade longitudinal study, the researchers discovered that exercise reduces the risk of incurring future anxiety disorders by 62%.

In a recently published study, a Swedish research team performed a large-scale observational study in hopes of finding whether or not exercise aids in long-term prevention of anxiety disorders. The team studied approximately 400,000 individuals over a 21 year period, and found that exercise does reduce risk of developing future anxiety disorders by 62%.

In previous studies, researchers have shown that exercise positively affects mental health through many different mechanisms. However, the importance of exercise intensity, as well as the amount of time these positive effects last, for the most part remains a mystery. The researchers from Lund University set out to find these answers. 

The researchers looked at all individuals who took part in Vasaloppet (the world’s largest long-distance cross country ski race) between 1989 and 2010. Researchers compared those individuals to each other, as well as to non-skiing individuals from the general population. Researchers took note of how fast skiers finished the race, which aided them in calculating the intensity of the workout.  The observational study followed these 395,369 individuals for 21 years. Men and women were studied separately in order to avoid a possible modifier. These individuals were then followed to see whether they had developed an anxiety disorder years after the race. 

The new study found skiers who performed in the Vasaloppet, had a 62% lower risk of becoming diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in the future compared to non-skiers. Regarding the intensity of exercise, intensity had no effect on anxiety risk for men. Opposingly, women who finished the race faster had a higher chance of developing an anxiety disorder compared to those who finished the race slower. Risk of developing an anxiety disorder for those who had the higher intensity workout was still lower than those of nonskiers. 

“We found that the group with a more physically active lifestyle had an almost 60% lower risk of developing anxiety disorders over a follow-up period of up to 21 years,” first author of the paper, Martine Svensson stated.

Anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 10% of the world’s population and, oftentimes, anxiety disorders are diagnosed in tandem with other mental illnesses such as depression. Mental health disorders are twice as prevalent in women than men. 

“Importantly, the total risk of getting anxiety among high-performing women was still lower compared to the more physically inactive women in the general population,” Svensson added.

This study emphasizes the positive benefits physical exercise has on mental health. The findings of the study demonstrated that the positive effects may be greater than what had been previously known. The study was one of the largest population-based studies known to date, aiding in providing a deeper understanding of the effects of exercise intensity and mental health, while suggesting physical exercise may have the potential to provide large, and long-lasting positive effects on mental health.


The study was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry on September 10th, 2021.

Abstract. Physical activity may prevent anxiety, but the importance of exercise intensity, sex-specific mechanisms, and duration of the effects remains largely unknown. We used an observational study design to follow 395,369 individuals for up to 21 years to investigate if participation in an ultralong-distance cross-country ski race (Vasaloppet, up to 90 km) was associated with a lower risk of developing anxiety. Skiers in the race and matched non-skiers from the general population were studied after participation in the race using the Swedish population and patient registries. Skiers (n = 197,685, median age 36 years, 38% women) had a significantly lower risk of developing anxiety during the follow-up compared to non-skiers (adjusted hazard ratio, HR 0.42). However, among women, higher physical performance (measured as the finishing time to complete the race, a proxy for higher exercise dose) was associated with an increased risk of anxiety compared to slower skiing women (HR 2.00). For men, the finishing time of the race did not significantly impact the risk of anxiety. Our results support the recommendations of engaging in physical activity to decrease the risk of anxiety in both men and women. The impact of physical performance level on the risk of anxiety requires further investigations among women.

Svensson, Martina, et al. “Physical Activity Is Associated with Lower Long-Term Incidence of Anxiety in a Population-Based, Large-Scale Study.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 12, 2021, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.714014.

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