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High-Intensity Exercise Best for Anxiety

Effect Especially Strong in Women Over 35

WebMD Health News

July 16, 2003 -- A new study shows that turning your exercise intensity up a few notches reduces stress and anxiety -- especially for women over 35.

Intense Exercise Works Best

For decades, health experts have been at odds about how much exercise actually makes a difference on stress and anxiety. Most of them agree that a moderate to low amount of regular exercise can ease anxiety. But the latest research from the University of Missouri in Columbia shows that high-intensity exercise is the best way to go.

The study, published in an upcoming issue of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, set out to examine how exercise affects anxiety levels. Women aged 18 to 20 and 35 to 45 took part. They had different fitness levels but similar anxiety levels.

First, researchers evaluated anxiety levels and separated them into three groups.

  • Women who exercised at moderate levels
  • Women who exercised at high intensity levels
  • Women who did not exercise (comparison group)

Researchers found that the high-intensity group showed the biggest anxiety improvement. They measured anxiety levels at 5, 30, 60, and 90 minutes after exercise, but ironically, the difference favoring the high-intensity group was not immediate. It was only after 30 minutes when researchers saw a sharp decrease in anxiety levels in this group.

Women Over 35 Benefit Most

Age also came into play. The effect on women aged 31 to 45 was nearly twice as large as the 18- to 30-year-old group. This is news that researchers say needs further exploring.

The research appears to suggest that the beneficial effects of exercise on anxiety may only apply to older women and not to younger women, says Richard Cox, PhD, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri, in a news release.

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