This will be no surprise to you, and it will give you more reason to get out and play, get moving and stay active, especially if you deal with anxiety and depression. And, with the world we’re living in, it seems that anything can trigger anxiety.
A large-scale study of almost 200,000 cross-country skiers found that being physically active reduces the risk, by half, of developing clinical anxiety over time. The Swedish study focused on skiing, but the researchers said almost any kind of aerobic activity would help protect us against excessive worry and dread.
There has been lots of evidence proving that exercise can lift our moods. Experiments show that when people start working out, they typically grow calmer, more resilient, happier, and less likely to feel excessively sad, nervous, or angry than they ordinarily were before. In addition, epidemiological studies have found that more exercise is linked with a substantially lower risk of developing severe depression. Conversely, being sedentary increases the risk for depression. A neurological study from 2013 even found that exercise leads to reductions in jittery, rodent anxiety by inducing an increase in the production of specialized neurons that release a chemical that calms hyperactivity in other parts of the brain.
For this new study, exercise scientists at Lund University in Sweden and other institutions focused on the long-term mental health of thousands of men and women who have raced Sweden’s famous Vasaloppet (the world’s most extensive cross-country ski race) over the years.
They used the participation of the Vasaloppet “as a proxy for a physically active and healthy lifestyle,” said Tomas Deierborg, the director of the experimental medicine department at Lund University and senior author of the new study. Deierborg has completed in the 90K race twice, himself.
The researchers gathered finishing times and other information for 197,685 Swedish men and women who participated in one of the races between 1989 and 2010. Then, they cross-checked this information with data from a Swedish national registry of patients, looking for diagnoses of clinical anxiety disorder among the racers in the following 10 to 20 years. For comparison, they also checked anxiety diagnoses for 197,684 of their randomly selected fellow citizens during the same time period. The latter had not participated in the race and were generally relatively inactive.
The researchers found that the skiers proved to be significantly calmer over the decades after their race than the other Swedes, with more than a 50% less risk of developing clinical anxiety. These good spirits tended to prevail among male and female skiers of almost any age — except, interestingly, the fastest female racers. Each year, after the race, the top female finishers were more inclined to develop anxiety disorders than other racers. However, their risk overall remained lower than for women of the same age in the control group.
These results indicate “the link between exercise and reduced anxiety is strong,” said Dr. Lena Brundin, another author on the study and a lead investigator of neurodegenerative diseases at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“It is not necessary to complete extreme exercise to achieve the beneficial effects on anxiety,” Dr. Brundin said. Instead, the researchers said any exercise in any setting should help us cope better this winter. “A physically active lifestyle seems to have a strong effect on reducing the chances of developing an anxiety disorder,” said Dr. Deierborg, who hopes to extend those benefits to the next generation. He plans to enter and train for another Vasaloppet in a few years, he said, when his young children are old enough to join him.