Study finds 'significant' decline in anxiety symptoms among women who exercise

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If you suffer from excessive, uncontrollable worry, perhaps the best way to treat it is through exercise, a recent study at the University of Georgia indicates.

About 3 percent of Americans, most of them women, suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, which is defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health as "a pattern of frequent, constant worry and anxiety over many different activities and events."

The main symptom of this condition is the presence of almost constant worry or tension, even when there is little or no cause. Other symptoms include fatigue, irritability, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.

Doctors aren't sure what causes generalized anxiety disorder. An imbalance in brain chemicals is the prime suspect. Others are genetics, life experiences and stress. Some physical health conditions, such as heart disease and menopause, also have been associated with this anxiety disorder.

But in the Georgia study, psychologists found a "significant" decline in worry symptoms among the exercisers and "moderate to large" improvements in other symptoms, such as irritability, feelings of tension and pain. The improvement was greater among women who lifted weights.

This was the first randomized controlled trial to focus on the effects of exercise on people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Researchers at the University of Georgia's College of Education studied 30 women diagnosed with this disorder. All were sedentary. Their ages ranged from 18 to 37. Half were assigned to a control group. The others were assigned to a six-week program of either resistance or aerobic exercise.

At the end of the study, all were examined by psychologists who did not know whether the women they examined were in the control group or the exercise group or what type of exercise they performed. The findings were published in the Nov. 22 issue of the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

Half the women receiving exercise therapy also were taking medication to reduce the effects of the disorder. Exercise reduced anxiety to the same degree whether the women were taking medication or not, the researchers found.

The drugs used to treat the anxiety disorder tend to be expensive and to produce unpleasant side effects.

"Our findings are particularly exciting because they suggest that exercise training is a feasible, well-tolerated potential adjuvant therapy with low risk," said Matthew Herring, who led the study while a doctoral candidate in the department of kinesiology.

Two local experts agreed.

Alicia Kaplan is a psychiatrist affiliated with Allegheny General Hospital. Many of her patients suffer from the anxiety disorder.

"I've recommended exercise to my patients for years," Dr. Kaplan said. "It can really help relieve muscle tension, and it channels nervous energy in a more productive way. If people exercise, they can better handle stress when it comes their way. It's interesting to learn that [exercise] also reduces worrying."

"I think it's a great study," said Kirk Erickson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, who researches the effects of exercise on brain health. "Once again it demonstrates that exercise influences us on more than just from the neck down. It has a definite effect on our moods."

Much more research is needed to determine how and why exercise reduces worry, increases cognitive function, and reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease, Mr. Erickson said.

"One reason why exercise is not yet routinely prescribed is that there is so much more to learn," he said. "We're really just barely reaching the potential for what exercise can do for the brain."

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476. First Published February 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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