The link between exercise and reduced risk of depression has already been established thanks to past studies, however, the connection between exercise and anxiety relief was still blurry. To see how individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder would respond to different forms of exercise, the researchers designed an experiment around 286 patients with anxiety, one of the largest studies of its kind to date.
The participants were separated into groups; One group was tasked with a moderate exercise regime while the other took on a strenuous exercise regime. Each group participated in hour-long training sessions with a warmup, all guided by a physical therapist. These sessions took place three times per week for 12 weeks straight and involved 45 minutes of combined aerobic and strength training, followed by cooldowns and stretching.
The moderate sessions were designed to get the participants’ heart rate to up to 60 percent of its maximum, while the strenuous sessions were designed so that participants’ heart rates would hit 75 percent. To measure this, the team used heart rate monitors and the Borg scale, an established measure of physical exertion.
At the end of the 12-week program, most of the participants from both groups experienced noticeable relief from their anxiety, however, the scientists observed that those in the strenuous exercise group reaped the most benefits. The chances of improvement in anxiety symptoms for those in the moderate program rose by a factor of 3.62 compared to a control group, while in the strenuous program, this factor increased to 4.88.
“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement—that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” said Malin Henriksson, first author of the study.
Although most people already know that maintaining an active lifestyle is good for your overall health, focused information like this truly drives home the benefits of more intense forms of exercise in managing chronic conditions such as anxiety. This study also paves a way for new treatments for the condition, potentially designed around heart rate and physical exertion, which could offer specialized alternatives for people with forms of the condition that don’t respond to standard treatments like medication or cognitive behavioral therapy.