Studies show that exercise can curb anxiety in patients dealing with a chronic illness such as heart and circulatory problems, fibromyalgia, arthritis, mental health problems, cancer, and breathing disorders.
Anxiety is common among people who are dealing with a chronic illness, yet it often goes unrecognised or untreated by doctors who may view it as an “unimportant response to a chronic illness,” Matthew P. Herring and colleagues from the University of Georgia in Athens note in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Yet, anxiety can have a negative impact on treatment, in part because anxious patients may be less apt to stick to their prescribed treatment regimen, they point out. Anti-anxiety drugs can ease anxiety, but exercise is a good option for those who want a non-drug approach, Herring and colleagues found.
They searched the medical literature for relevant studies that tested the effects of exercise (versus no exercise) in sedentary adults with a chronic illness. The people included in the 40 selected studies were 50 years old on average, and 59% were women. Those assigned to exercise worked out three times per week for an average of 16 weeks, for an average of 42 minutes per session.
The types of exercises performed varied considerably, but all forms reduced anxiety symptoms by approximately 20%, compared with no exercise. “Even though the majority of these patient groups did not have extremely elevated anxiety symptom scores at the beginning of exercise training, anxiety symptoms were still reduced,” Herring noted. Multiple sclerosis was the only illness for which exercise seemed to do little to curb anxiety.
The benefits of exercise for anxiety were similar whether or not the exercise regimen met recommendations for moderate or vigorous physical activity. Exercise programs lasting between 3 and 12 weeks resulted in larger anxiety symptom reductions than programs longer than 12 weeks, while exercise sessions greater than 30 minutes elicited larger anxiety reductions compared to sessions less than 30 minutes.
According to Herring, patients were more likely to stick with shorter duration exercise programs “which might account for larger anxiety reductions compared to longer program durations.” To put it another way, he said, “better participation rates likely will result in greater anxiety reductions.”
Although the role of exercise in alleviating depression symptoms has been well studied, the impact of exercise training on anxiety symptoms has received comparatively little attention, Herring told Reuters Health. “The findings of our review add to the growing body of evidence that physical activities such as walking or weight lifting may be low-cost, effective treatments to help alleviate anxiety symptoms among patients.” Exercise “may be especially useful” for patients with chronic illnesses who prefer non-drug approaches to dealing with anxiety, Herring and colleagues note in their report.