How exercise can tame our fear

How exercise can tame our fear


To better cope with all of the discouraging news this winter of rising Covid-19 cases and much more, you may want to go out and play in the snow, according to a new report. The large-scale study of nearly 200,000 cross-country skiers found that physical activity halved the risk of developing clinical anxiety over time. The study from Sweden focused on skiing, but the researchers said almost any type of aerobic activity is likely to protect us from undue worry and anxiety, a cheering thought as we face another dire pandemic season.

Science already offers plenty of encouraging evidence that exercise can lift our spirits. Experiments show that exercising usually makes people (and laboratory animals) calmer, more resilient, happier, and less prone to feeling excessively sad, nervous, or angry than they did before. Epidemiological studies, often focusing on the association between a type of activity or behavior and various aspects of health or longevity, have also found that more exercise is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing major depression; Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression. A notable neurological study in 2013 even found that exercise reduced twitching rodent fear by triggering an increase in the production of specialized neurons that release a chemical that alleviates overactivity in other parts of the brain.

But most of these studies were small, short-term, or primarily relevant to mice, leaving many questions unanswered as to what types of exercise might help our mental health, how long the mood enhancement could possibly last, whether men and women benefit equally, and whether it is possible exercising too much and potentially increasing your likelihood of feeling worse emotionally.

For the new study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, sports scientists from Lund University in Sweden and other institutions decided it would be worthwhile to look at the long-term mental health of thousands and thousands of men and women who have participated in the course of the Skilled at Sweden’s famous cross-country event Vasaloppet for years.

The Vasaloppet, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this winter, is the world’s largest cross-country skiing series, with crowds of racers lining up in the forests of central Sweden every year to rush, slide and rush through 30-inch races panting kilometers or nearly 19 miles to the model distance of 90K, about 56 miles. Because this type of endurance sport requires a lot of health, endurance, and training, researchers previously used data from Vasaloppet racers to study how exercise affects heart health, cancer risk, and longevity.

“We use attending a Vasaloppet as a proxy for a physically active and healthy lifestyle,” said Tomas Deierborg, director of the Department of Experimental Medicine at Lund University and lead author of the new study, who completed the 90 km race twice .

To begin with, he and his colleagues collected target times and other information from 197,685 Swedish men and women who took part in one of the races between 1989 and 2010. They then compared this information with data from a Swedish national patient registry to look for diagnoses of clinical anxiety disorder in the racing drivers over the next 10 to 20 years. For comparison, they also checked fear diagnoses in 197,684 of their randomly selected fellow citizens who had not participated in the race and were generally considered to be relatively inactive.

The skiers, the researchers found, proved to be significantly calmer than the other Swedes in the decades after their race, with a more than 50 percent lower risk of developing clinical anxiety. This good mood prevailed among skiers of almost all ages – except, interestingly, among the fastest racers. The front runners each year tended to develop anxiety disorders more than other racing drivers, although their overall risk remained lower than that of women of the same age in the control group.

These results suggest that “the link between exercise and reduced anxiety is strong,” said Dr. Lena Brundin, a senior neurodegenerative disease investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who was another author on the study.

And helpfully, you probably don’t have to long cross-country trails in Sweden’s snowy forests to reap the rewards, said Dr. Deierborg. Previous studies of exercise and mood suggest that following the World Health Organization’s recommendations of about 30 minutes of brisk walking or similar activity most days “has good effects on your mental health,” he said, and these benefits appear to be beneficial to a ” wider population “to be considered” than just Swedes.

Still, it can be worth monitoring your psychological response to intense training and competition, especially if you are a competitive woman, he said. The finding that the fastest women were more likely to develop anxiety than other female racers surprised the researchers, he said, suggesting that racing might trigger or worsen performance anxiety or other problems in some people.

“It is not necessary to do extreme exercise to get the positive effects on anxiety,” said Dr. Brundin.

The results have limits, however. You can’t prove that exercise improves your mood, just that highly active people tend to be less anxious than their more sedentary peers. The study also fails to explain how skiing can reduce anxiety. The researchers suggest that physical activity alters mood-dependent levels of brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, reducing inflammation throughout the body and brain, and physiologically contributing to greater mental health. Also, it probably doesn’t hurt to be outside among silent, snow-covered pine trees and far from Zoom calls while training for a vasaloppet.

Any exercise in any setting should likely help us cope better this winter, the researchers said. “An active lifestyle appears to have a strong influence on reducing the risk of an anxiety disorder,” said Dr. Deierborg, who wants to extend these advantages to the next generation. He plans to join another Vasaloppet and train in a few years, he said when his young children are old enough to come to him.



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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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