Exercise Reduces Anxiety in those with Chronic Illnesses

Anxiety refers to an unpleasant feeling based on worry, which is usually an adaptive response to stress. Anxiety is, understandably, a common problem for patients with chronic illness. However, it often goes unrecognised or untreated. Anxiety can have negative effects on both the treatment and outcome of illnesses. A new study reviewing research in the area of physical activity and exercise suggests that exercise may improve anxiety symptoms among patients. The study also attempted to determine whether practical or theoretical variables were more important to the anxiety-reducing effect.

The study, recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, systematically reviewed articles found through the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Scientific Database, as well as through Google Scholar, Medline, PsycINFO, PubMed, and Web of Science. A total of forty articles were selected for analysis. The articles dealt with sedentary adults with chronic illness, and included anxiety measurements at baseline and after a physical activity program of some kind that lasted for at least 3 weeks. The studies examined 2914 patients in total and extracted information about variables that may affect the anxiety outcome effects.

Results of the analysis revealed that physical activity significantly decreased anxiety scores for patients with chronic illnesses. "Our findings add to the growing body of evidence that physical activities such as walking or weight lifting may turn out to be the best medicine that physicians can prescribe to help their patients feel less anxious," said lead author Matthew Herring, a doctoral student in the department of kinesiology, part of the UGA College of Education.

Interestingly, exercise programs lasting 3 to 12 weeks showed significantly greater benefits for patients than programs lasting longer than 12 weeks. The results are comparable to those found for the effect of exercise on depression, cognitive function in elderly people, and quality of life among MS patients. In all those areas, programs from 4 to 12 weeks seemed to be the most effective. In addition, exercise sessions longer than 30 minutes had significantly greater benefits than sessions of 10 to 30 minutes.

The researchers are uncertain as to why programs lasting 12 weeks were the most effective, but hypothesise that it may be due to better adherence to a limited time program. As exercise program length increases, adherence to the program generally decreases.

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