Updated: Aug 24, 2022
According to the January 12th, 2022 article written by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times, a “large scale study of almost 200,000 cross country skiers found that being physically active halves the risk of developing clinical anxiety over time”.
The study cited in this article was yet another of many pieces of research over the past 10 years to show that regular exercise is a valid and effective form of treatment for anxiety disorders. Or, in the case of this article, it shows that exercise appears to be a means of preventing the development of an anxiety disorder in the first place.
Not only that, but apparently she is a big believer in what we are doing here at The Well Being. So much so that she wrote a blog about this study for us to publish ourselves! We are honored by this, and want to express our sincere appreciation to Dr. Brundin for sending this along! Hope you enjoy!
Summary / comment on "Physical Activity is Associated with Lower Long-Term Incidence of Anxiety in a Population-based, Large-scale Study." - Lena Brundin, MD, PhD
In this study, I collaborated with other neuroscientists at Lund University as well as epidemiologists at Uppsala University, Sweden. Sweden is unique in the respect that it has several national registries that monitors the health of the population, and some of them started already over 60 years ago. It makes it possible to study the long-term effects of different aspects of our lives, including exercise and medications, on diseases that we develop later on in life. In this particular study, we were interested in assessing the effects of exercise on mental health at the population level, over several decades. Even though several studies indicate that exercise has beneficial effects on mental health, most of them are done in smaller cohorts, and over much shorter periods of time. The study we performed was unique since we were able to follow nearly 400.000 individuals, 200.000 skiers and 200.000 population-based controls, for up to several decades after their participation in the race. The race itself is also unique, as it is the world’s oldest cross country ski races, ru
n yearly in northern Sweden since the 1920’s. It attracts around 16.000 skiers each year, and is 90 km long. It is held to commemorate the Swedish king Gustav Vasa, who in 1520 skied cross country to flee the attacking Danish king Christian and his men. Gustav Vasa managed to raise the resistance during his race, and eventually defeated the Danish. Our results showed that physical activity may prevent the development of anxiety disorders, as skiers had a significantly lower risk of developing anxiety during the follow-up compared to non-skiers (adjusted hazard ratio, HR 0.42). Many other studies also show that exercise has a beneficial effect on anxiety; supporting our findings. It is still possible that factors other than the exercise can contribute to this link. For example, the long-distance skiers are known to have some other healthy lifestyle factors, such as healthy diets and less smoking, than the overall population, which could also affect the risk for anxiety. We didn’t investigate by what mechanisms the exercise might have affected the brain in this epidemiological study, but exercise reduces the amount of inflammation in the body, and inflammation is something I study in several other projects, because of the effects in terms of depression and anxiety that inflammation might have. Although not analyzed in our study on the skiers, evidence shows that being outdoors and getting daylight are additional helpful factors. Sunlight induces the production of vitamin D — an important factor that also helps reduce and control inflammation, thereby helping mood. We have shown in another research study that patients with depression and suicidal behavior had low levels of vitamin D.