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Exercise Eases Anxiety in Chronically Ill People

People With Chronic Illnesses Who Exercise Regularly Report About a 20% Reduction in Anxiety Symptoms, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 22, 2010 -- Regular exercise may provide an unexpected benefit for people who have chronic illnesses like heart disease and arthritis.

A new study shows that regular exercise relieves anxiety in chronically ill people and may help improve their quality of life.

Researchers say this anxiety relief is in addition to other proven general health and well-being benefits of regular exercise.

"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," researcher Matthew Herring, a doctoral student in the department of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, says in a news release.

Researchers say that anxiety symptoms and disorders are common in people with chronic illnesses and can have a negative effect on health because anxious people are less likely to follow prescribed treatments.

Anxiety Relief From Exercise

In the study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers reviewed 40 studies on the effects of exercise in people with chronic illnesses. The studies were published from 1995 to 2007 and involved nearly 3,000 people. The participants in the studies suffered from a variety of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and arthritis.

The results showed that people with chronic illnesses who exercised regularly reported about a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms, compared to those who did not exercise.

Researchers found that in 90% of the studies analyzed, people with chronic illnesses who exercised regularly had fewer symptoms of anxiety, such as feelings of worry, apprehension, and nervousness, than people who did not exercise.

The study also showed that regular exercise sessions longer than 30 minutes were better at providing relief from anxiety than sessions shorter than 30 minutes.

But the duration of the exercise program seemed to have the opposite effect. Exercise programs that lasted 3-12 weeks appeared to provide better anxiety relief than programs lasting longer than 12 weeks. Researchers say this may be because people find it harder to stick with a longer exercise program.

"Because not all study participants completed every exercise session, the effect of exercise on anxiety reported in our study may be underestimated," co-author Rod Dishman, PhD, professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, Athens, says in the release. "Regardless, our work supports the use of exercise to treat a variety of physical and mental health conditions, with less risk of adverse events than medication."

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