The World Health Organization, in collaboration with the World Bank and Harvard University, has determined the “burden of disability” associated with the whole range of diseases and health conditions suffered by peoples throughout the world (5, 11). This study showed that the burden of mental disorders had been greatly underestimated. Worldwide, mental illness is the second leading cause of disability and premature mortality (5). Five of the 10 leading causes of disability are mental disorders, generating an immense public health burden (5, 11). According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives (11). Anxiety and depressive disorders are the primary mental disorders.
Anxiety disorders, including various phobias, panic attacks, and obsessive- compulsive behaviour, are the most prevalent of all mental health problems. One of the most common measures of anxiety is the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) (8).
STAI scores are based on responses to a variety of questions on tension, nervousness, self-confidence, indecisiveness, security, confusion, worry, and so on. Other measures of anxiety include blood pressure, heart rate, skin responses (galvanic, palmar sweating, and skin temperature), central nervous system measures [electroencephalogram (EEG)], and electromyography (e.g., muscular tension of the forehead muscles).
Researchers have studied the effects of acute (before and after one bout) and chronic (before and after several weeks of training) exercise on anxiety. One of the most frequently reported psychological benefits of acute exercise is a reduction in state anxiety (anxiety the subject feels “right now”) following vigorous exercise, an effect that may last up to several hours (2, 3, 6, 7, 9).
A study of 60 untrained males who engaged in one of the following activities for 50 minutes: (a) resistance exercise, (b) cycling at 70% of maximum, (c) autogenic relaxation, or (d) resting quietly in a sound chamber, found interesting results. One hour following these sessions, state anxiety was reduced most strongly in the cycling group (2). In another study, 15 adults completed 20 minute sessions of cycle ergometer exercise on separate days at intensities equal to 40%, 60% or 70% of maximum (7). State anxiety was reduced for 2 hours following all exercise sessions, demonstrating that light-to-heavy intensities are equally effective. The reduction in state anxiety is a consistent finding following aerobic, but not resistance, exercise (3) and occurs during any time of the day (9).
Exercise training has been linked to a reduction in trait anxiety (anxiety the subject “generally feels”). The reduction in anxiety is most noticeable when exercise is regular, sessions last longer than 30 minutes, and the training programs last several months (10). A study was conducted involving 35 sedentary, mildly obese women (mean age 34 years) who were randomly assigned to exercise or non-exercise groups (1). Women in the exercise group walked briskly five times a week, 45 minutes per session, for 15 weeks, and they experienced a significant reduction in anxiety relative to the non-exercise group. This study supports the idea that moderate aerobic exercise such as brisk walking is a sufficient stimulus to reduce anxiety and tension (4).
One meta-analysis (6) of 104 studies of 3,048 subjects on the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise came to several conclusions, including the following:
- Training programs usually need to exceed 10 weeks before there are significant changes in trait anxiety (the anxiety one generally feels).
- Exercise of at least 20 minutes duration seems necessary to achieve reductions in both state and trait anxiety.
- Reductions in both state and trait anxiety occur after aerobic, but not anaerobic, exercise training programs.
If you have Anxiety, learn about how Anxiety is a chronic disease which is eligible to receive a Medicare Rebate when seeing an Accredited Exercise Physiologist:
Did you know you could get up to 50% off with a Medicare Rebate?
Learn how an Accredited Exercise Physiologist can help you to begin and maintain exercise in your life, so you can enjoy the health benefits of Exercise for Diabetes:
What Does an Exercise Physiologist Do?