Living with a global pandemic for a year and a half has taken a toll on our collective mental health.
A study from the start of the year showed that 1 in 5 adultss said they were experiencing high levels of psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, loneliness and symptoms of physical distress. And throughout the pandemic, approximately 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders.
When a person is struggling with mental health issues, people suggest that they get their body moving. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which can help you feel better.
Read more: “We Can Get Over This”: Struggling With Your Mental Health During The Pandemic? Try these tips and resources
But what if exercise could prevent mental health problems in the first place? A new study by Swedish researchers highlights this possibility.
The study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry Friday, found that physical activity can prevent anxiety disorders. The researchers conducted an observational study that followed nearly 400,000 people who competed in the world’s largest cross-country ski race between 1989 and 2010. The study found that people who competed in the race had a “significantly lower risk” of developing anxiety. compared to 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 noted.
“This association between a physically active lifestyle and a lower risk of anxiety has been observed in both men and women,” they continued.
While the study did not examine the exact reasons why exercise appears to prevent anxiety, the researchers said physical activity can preoccupy the mind and distract it from anxious thoughts. They also believe that the natural environment in which the skiers raced was beneficial.
But you can have too many good things: Researchers found that women who had higher physical performance – measured by finishing the race faster – were actually at a increase risk of anxiety, compared to their slower skier counterparts. A male skier’s ability did not affect his risk of developing an anxiety disorder, but the highest performing group of women had almost double the risk of developing an anxiety disorder than the lowest performing group of women.
The results of the study “suggest that the relationship between anxiety symptoms and exercise behavior may not be linear,” Svensson said.
Yet the researchers found that “the total risk of anxiety among high-performing women was consistently lower than that of more physically inactive women in the general population.”
In general, it is estimated that anxiety disorders affect up to 10% of the world’s population and are twice as common in women.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, according to 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, according to the ADAA, and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric conditions than those without an anxiety disorder.
Related: The hidden cost of our mental health crisis: $ 1 trillion in lost productivity
“Due to the high prevalence, early onset and frequency of resistance to treatment in people with anxiety disorders, their contribution to years lived with disability and to the economic burden on society is substantial,” said said the study’s authors.
Overall, mental health issues lead to an annual success of $ 1 trillion to the global economy due to lost productivity, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization.