Through research biographies, impact statements, presented seminars, available online information regarding my publication record, the focus of my teaching, and if you have simply talked with me about what I do, I think most folks have discerned that I am pretty focused on and passionate about progressing our understanding of how and why physical activity and exercise influence mental health and the plausible mechanisms that underlie those relationships. However, at times I am not sure that I have focused enough in the past several years on the research area for which I have the most internationally-recognized expertise: physical activity, exercise, and anxiety.
To this point in my career 17 of the articles that I have authored or co-authored and a forthcoming book chapter have focused on physical activity, exercise, and anxiety, including the first and most comprehensive quantitative synthesis of exercise effects on anxiety symptoms among chronically-ill patients (Herring et al., 2010, Archives of Internal Medicine) and the most rigorous experimental evidence of exercise for anxiety disorders, particularly subclinical (Herring et al., 2017, Psychology of Sport and Exercise) and clinical Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) (Herring et al., 2011, Mental Health and Physical Activity; Herring et al., 2012, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics; Herring et al., 2015, Mental Health and Physical Activity; Herring et al., 2016, Psychology of Sport and Exercise). However, it is well known that anxiety has received less empirical attention than depression within the exercise literature. Given that anxiety disorders are more prevalent than all other disorders other than substance abuse, and are more often co-morbid with depressive and substance abuse disorders than not, the lesser focus on anxiety persists as one of the great empirical ironies, in my humble but accurate opinion. Thus, we in the Exercise Psychology Research Group within the Sport & Exercise Psychology Lab at UL have somewhat refocused our efforts in the past year toward a tighter focus on anxiety.
In 2017, eight of the 12 publications from members of our group focused on continuing to move this research area forward. Our epidemiological work provided more information regarding the benefits of physical activity for anxiety symptoms among large samples of adolescents (McDowell, MacDonncha, and Herring, 2017, Journal of Adolescence) and older adults (McDowell, Gordon, Andrews, MacDonncha, and Herring, 2018, Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences), the association between sedentary behaviour and anxiety in low- and middle-income countries (Vancampfort, Stubbs, Herring, Hallgren, and Koyanagi, 2017, General Hospital Psychiatry), and the influence of anxiety symptoms on physical activity levels among inactive people with Multiple Sclerosis (Uszynski, Herring, Casey, Hayes, Gallagher, Motl, and Coote, 2017, International Journal of Behavioral Medicine). Our meta-analytic work highlighted the small-to-moderate positive effects of exercise training on anxiety symptoms among patients with Fibromyalgia (McDowell, Cook, and Herring, 2017, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise), and provided the first quantitative synthesis of the lesser studied effects of resistance exercise training on anxiety symptoms (Gordon, McDowell, Lyons, and Herring, 2017, Sports Medicine). Moreover, our experimental work produced the first evidence of the benefits of even a single bout of aerobic exercise for worry and state anxiety among young women with probable GAD (Herring, Hallgren, and Campbell, 2017, Psychology of Sport and Exercise), and collaborative work with Prof. Susan Coote’s MS Research Group demonstrated the positive effects of exercise plus social cognitive theory education on anxiety symptoms among people with MS (Coote, Uszynski, Herring, Hayes, Scarrot, Newell, Gallagher, Larkin, and Motl, 2017, BMC Neurology). Importantly, this body of work highlighted several implications for future research that have guided our ongoing work.
Based on gaps in the available literature, including implications from our work in 2017, we have sought to elucidate the associations between physical activity (McDowell, Dishman, Vancampfort, Hallgren, Stubbs, and MacDonncha, In Review, International Journal of Epidemiology) and strength (Gordon, McDowell, and Herring, In Review, Journal of Psychiatry Research) and GAD among older adults, along with the correlates of sedentary behaviour among community-dwelling adults with anxiety in low- and middle-income countries (Vancampfort, Stubbs, Smith, Gardner, Herring, and Koyanagi, In Review, BMC Psychiatry). We also realized the clear need to replicate our initial findings of the positive effects of acute exercise among young women with probable GAD and to expand to young men with probable GAD (Herring, Monroe, Gordon, and Campbell, In Preparation). We also have manuscripts In Preparation that expand our epidemiological work among adolescents to the associations of objectively-measured physical activity and sedentary time with anxiety (McDowell et al., In Preparation) and a large-scale look at the association between physical activity and anxiety across multiple cohorts of Irish adults (McDowell et al., In Preparation). Moreover, we are closing in on a full update of the 2010 meta-analysis of exercise effects on anxiety symptoms among chronically-ill patients (Herring, McDowell, Gordon, O’Connor, and Dishman, In Preparation). Finally, the goals of our ongoing experimental work are two-fold à in collaboration with Dr. Mark Campbell, we are actively examining the influence of attentional mechanisms on anxiety responses to exercise; and, Dr. Mark Lyons, Brett Gordon, and I have an ongoing trial focused on resistance exercise training among young adults with elevated worry. This is certainly not to discount the other exciting work that is being conducted by our group and with our collaborators, but our continued contribution to a better understanding of the influence of physical activity and exercise on anxiety symptoms looks promising for 2018.
Dr. Matthew Herring is a Lecturer in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. His primary research interests focus on the effects of exercise on mental health outcomes, particularly anxiety and depression, among otherwise healthy adults and patients with cardiometabolic disorders, cancer, chronic pain, and/or obesity, as well as the putative mechanisms (e.g., neurobiological, inflammatory) of exercise adoption, response, and adherence.