The Role of Physical Activity in Preventing Anxiety Disorders – Cillian McDowell

Anxiety disorders are consistently the most common type of mental disorder in the general population. There is substantial evidence to support their association with reduced quality of life, the development of chronic medical conditions, and premature mortality, in addition to costing billions to the European economy each year. Despite this, the amount of people with anxiety disorders who seek care can be as low as 50% in developed countries (falling to 15% in some developing countries) as the symptoms are often interpreted as normal responses to social adversity, or people do recognise the issues but feel they can deal with them by themselves.

Experimental evidence has shown that exercise can be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, but it is relatively under-researched compared to other mental disorders, such as depression. Similarly, the role of physical activity in protecting against the development of anxiety disorders is also relatively under-researched.

Our work, using data from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, has shown that people who meet the World Health Organisation physical activity guidelines (i.e., ≥150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, ≥75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week) are 59% less likely to develop generalised anxiety disorder after two years compared to those not meeting the guidelines. This is consistent with the other studies that have examined the protective benefits of physical activity for generalised anxiety disorder, other anxiety disorders, and elevated anxiety symptoms; however, as mentioned, this area is relatively under-researched and there is a need for further research to corroborate these findings. Nonetheless, the evidence base is quite promising and consistent with the findings for other mental disorders, such as depression.

If you do want to begin exercising and to experience its mental and physical health benefits, keep in mind the words of Pete McCall, Exercise Physiologist at the American Council on Exercise: “The most important thing with starting an exercise program is to establish a regular pattern of exercise.” However, even if you do not have time in your schedule on a particular day, he recommends finding “activities, such as taking the stairs or parking in the spot farthest away from their destination, to help increase your daily activity levels.

Every little bit of activity adds up.

Cillian McDowell is a postgraduate student in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department, University of Limerick. Cillian will graduate with a PhD in Autumn conferrings. View Cillian’s profile here! Contact:

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