Living through a global pandemic for the past year and a half has taken a toll on our collective mental health.
A study from earlier this year showed that 1 in 5 adults said they were experiencing high levels of psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, loneliness and physical distress symptoms. And throughout the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders.
When someone is struggling with mental health, people will suggest that they get their body moving. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which can help you feel better.
But what if exercise could prevent mental health issues in the first place? A new study from researchers in Sweden points to that possibility.
The study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry on Friday, found that physical activity may prevent anxiety disorders. Researchers conducted an observational study that followed almost 400,000 people who took part in the world’s largest long-distance cross-country ski race between 1989 and 2010. The study found that people who participated in the race had a “significantly lower risk” of developing anxiety compared with non-skiers during the same period.
“We found that the group with a more physically active lifestyle had an almost 60% lower risk of developing anxiety disorders over a follow-up period of up to 21 years,” authors Martine Svensson and Tomas Deierborg said.
“This association between a physically active lifestyle and a lower risk of anxiety was seen in both men and women,” they continued.
While the study did not look at the exact reasons exercise seems to prevent anxiety, the researchers said physical activity could pre-occupy the mind and distract it from anxious thoughts. They also believe the natural environment the skiers raced in was beneficial.
But you can have too much of a good thing: The researchers found that women who had higher physical performances — measured by finishing the race faster — were actually at an increased risk for anxiety, compared with their slower skiing counterparts. A male skier’s ability did not affect his risk for developing an anxiety disorder, but the highest performing group of women had almost double the risk of developing an anxiety disorder as the lower performing group of women.
The study’s findings “suggest that the relation between symptoms of anxiety and exercise behavior may not be linear,” Svensson said.
Still, the researchers found that “the total risk of getting anxiety among high-performing women was still lower compared with the more physically inactive women in the general population.”
In general, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect up to 10% of the global population and are twice as common among women.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), affecting 40 million adults.
People with anxiety are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor, the ADAA says, and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not have an anxiety disorder.
“Due to the high prevalence, early-onset, and frequency of treatment-resistance among individuals with anxiety disorders, their contribution to years lived with disability and economic burden for society is substantial,” the study’s authors said.
Overall, mental-health issues result in a $1 trillion annual hit to the global economy because of lost productivity, according to a recent study from the World Health Organization.