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Physical activity may help ease anxiety

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

This month, we’ll be talking about anxiety, and giving a brief overview of the effects of physical activity on anxiety.

Anxiety is quite common in both the general population and among cancer survivors. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition, and commonly occur with other chronic physical and mental illnesses, including cancer.

Anxiety is characterized by worrisome thoughts and feelings. It is typically accompanied by feelings of tension and other physical symptoms, such as elevated heart rate and breathing rate.

Let’s look at two forms of anxiety: state and trait. State anxiety describes how you feel right now, including any present feelings of tension, nervousness and worry.  Trait anxiety describes how anxious you are on average.

Fortunately, exercise and physical activity improve trait anxiety in healthy adults and cancer survivors. Also, being physically active is protective against the development of anxiety. In a recent review of the effects of physical activity on anxiety among cancer survivors, it was found that moderate-intensity aerobic training three times per week for 12 weeks, or twice weekly combined aerobic plus resistance training six to 12 weeks can significantly reduce anxiety in cancer survivors during and after treatment.

As for state anxiety, how anxious you feel right now, recent reviews have shown that a single bout of exercise significantly reduces anxiety symptoms.

There are several reasons exercise might help with anxiety, including social support experienced during exercise or exercise may reduce anxiety by affecting the same parts of the brain involved in the development of anxiety.

The take-home message is that beyond the number of physical health benefits available from engaging in guidelines based physical activity, there are a number of mental health benefits as well, including improvements in anxiety.

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