Working Out to Avoid Freaking Out

It’s hard to imagine a cancer diagnosis that doesn’t provoke some level of anxiety.

When I was told that I had breast cancer, it didn’t take long before I got a prescription for Xanax because my anxiety was going through the roof — I clearly couldn’t handle everything I was feeling. It wasn’t until my radiation oncologist suggested that I try meditation that my view of the best way to handle my anxious feelings changed, and eventually I dropped the Xanax altogether.

But one thing that I kept on doing was exercising, at least as much as I could manage on a given day. So after reading a recent study about exercise, I had to wonder how much worse my experience might have been if I hadn’t kept to my workouts.

Henriksson et al. (2022, Journal of Affective Disorders; see link below) found that engaging in moderate or strenuous exercise was very effective in relieving the symptoms of anxiety. What I found so interesting was that half of the study participants had actually lived with anxiety for at least a decade, and they still got relief!

The subjects in the exercise groups did a combination of both strength and cardio training.

The subjects in the experimental groups were assigned to one of two groups: low-to-moderate intensity group exercise or high intensity group exercise. The exercise was timed circuit training that combined both cardiovascular and strength moves and subjects maintained heartrates at levels appropriate for their assigned intensity levels. At the end of the 12-week program, everyone’s anxiety had significantly decreased, as compared to a control group that was not participating in group exercise.

What is striking is that there was a tendency for the improvement to follow the level of intensity; the harder the subjects exercised, the more anxiety relief they experienced. Talk about motivation!

My own experience echoes this, but in a subtractive sense. At times of intense stress, my anxiety skyrockets when I’m prevented from engaging in my regular workouts. This may happen, for example, when I’m dealing with an unreasonable workload that ties me to my desk and preempts my exercise sessions.

I used to wonder why I felt so much worse when I was getting more work done. This study answers that question for me.

Couple these results with what we’ve learned about the beneficial effects of exercise in decreasing the risk of recurrence of breast cancer and it is incredible why physicians don’t write exercise prescriptions for their patients, and why personal trainer sessions are not covered by health insurance.

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There are several things that I feel are important to underscore here if you’re interested in trying this out yourself.

The social aspect of the exercise sessions may have also played a role in alleviating the anxiety that the study participants had initially complained of, and there was the added benefit of a pre-planned, supervised program.

First, this was a group session. That means that there was also social support involved as no one was exercising alone. The subjects were supervised by a physiotherapist; they didn’t have to come up with their own program, as it had been created for them.

Also, the exercise included both cardio and strength exercises and included warm-up, cool-down and stretching, so it covered all the bases, so to speak. And the subjects got fitter as the study progressed, so there was also a sense of self-efficacy at work here.

Does this mean that the exercise didn’t matter? Not at all! The emotional benefits of exercise have been documented in previous studies. If you consider the mind-body as a single system, as your physical fitness improves, your mental health will generally follow.

If you’d like to see the original article, it is available free online:
Malin Henriksson, Alexander Wall, Jenny Nyberg, Martin Adiels, Karin Lundin, Ylva Bergh, Robert Eggertsen, Louise Danielsson, H. Georg Kuhn, Maria Westerlund, N. David Åberg, Margda Waern, Maria Åberg. Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trialJournal of Affective Disorders, 2022; 297: 26 DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2021.10.006

For a reader-friendly version, see the write-up in Science Daily:
University of Gothenburg. “Anxiety effectively treated with exercise.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 November 2021. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/11/211109095348.htm