It is well established that physical exercise is good for you. Most people know that frequent exercise is protective against chronic illnesses and medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and osteoporosis (just to name a few). A growing body of research is also suggesting some benefits of exercise for psychological functioning. Over time, people who exercise more, typically show higher levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction, positive emotions, better concentration, and lower stress levels. So, it seems that the rewards of exercise are wide-ranging.
Researchers have started to examine the impact of physical exercise on psychological conditions such as anxiety disorders. People with anxiety disorders (e.g., phobias, panic disorders, etc.) experience high levels of uneasiness and tension and report considerable worry about future events. Individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) worry frequently and intensely more days than not, about various day-to-day matters (e.g., health, money, getting to places on time, etc.). For most, physical symptoms are also present such as muscle tension, sore jaw muscles, heartburn, and gastrointestinal problems. Since people with GAD worry a lot and tend to be a physically inactive group (according to some studies), investigating the effectiveness of exercise as a potential intervention for GAD is both useful and important.
In a study published in 2012, researchers from the University of South Carolina recruited 30 inactive female participants diagnosed by clinicians with GAD. The researchers investigated whether six weeks of exercise training impacted excessive worry, the core feature of GAD. Participants were randomly assigned (like flipping a coin) to one of three conditions: resistance training exercise (RET), aerobic training exercise (AET), or a no-training condition, and engaged in lower-body weightlifting, leg cycling, and no training, respectively. In both RET and AET, participants completed two, 46 minute exercise sessions every week. Participants in all groups completed questionnaires throughout the study to assess the tendency to worry. The results indicated that the greatest decreases in worry occurred for those who engaged in RET, followed by AET, and least for those in the no-training condition. The research group suggested that the therapeutic effect of RET is connected to relative exercise intensity, as participants gave higher ratings of perceived physical exertion for RET than for AET.
How do different exercises benefit worry? Although researchers are not certain, it is possible that greater exercise intensity helps alleviate GAD symptoms because strenuous activity changes the biological stress system to better regulate stress and arousal; this, in turn, might reduce tension and worry. In contrast, aerobic exercise increases the production of pain-relieving chemicals in the brain to temporarily subdue anxiety levels, possibly acting like a buffer against worry. Regardless of specific mechanisms of action, resistance and aerobic exercise are likely both effective in reducing worry because they boost people’s feelings of mastery and control. People with GAD tend to be highly intolerant of uncertainty, and so believing that one has agency might be powerful in reducing worry.
Results from this preliminary study are encouraging; they suggest that in addition to physical health and well-being, exercise may also be helpful for reducing frequent and excessive worry. Psychotherapy services in Canada (e.g., Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can be expensive and inaccessible to those that need it most. Alternatively, a combination of resistance and aerobic training can be a low-cost, short-term treatment option for GAD. More research is needed to examine the therapeutic potential of exercise for GAD.