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Mental distraction from worrisome thoughts
Just how much does exercise help anxiety? Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Whenever I get highly stressed out—say, for example, right now, when I’m handling my least favorite annual activity, which is collecting all my receipts and financial data so that my friend and CPA, Griff (the human inspiration for the “send a Bible rule” I’ve written about before) can talk me off a ledge and get my taxes done—I start to think about all the advice I’ve received (and even written about) on how to handle stress healthily.
At the top of the list? People say to exercise. Studies show that exercise is good for mental health, and we could write an entire newsletter full of anecdotal evidence.
A little while back, my colleague Jess Stillman wrote about one of the biggest studies ever done to quantify just how much exercise can help with anxiety and other mental health issues. So while I finish digging up those last receipts, I asked her if I could share the findings with you. How much impact can an active lifestyle have on your mental health over time? Here’s Jess:
by Jess Stillman
A massive study in Frontiers in Psychiatry aimed to offer a rigorous answer to the question of whether you can actually measure the effect that exercise has on mental health, with a particular focus on diagnosable anxiety disorders.
When it comes to the size of the sample being investigated, it would be hard to do better than this 2021 study. To find a group of committed exercisers, the Swedish research team looked to participants in the world's largest long-distance cross-country ski race, the Vasaloppet.
Presumably those who participate in the annual 90-kilometer race spend plenty of time working out, so why not compare how often nearly 200,000 former race participants were diagnosed with anxiety disorders with a matched set of 200,000 members of the general population?
The results were striking.
"We found that the group with a more physically active lifestyle had an almost 60 percent lower risk of developing anxiety disorders over a follow-up period of up to 21 years," study co-author Martina Svensson told PsyPost. "This association between a physically active lifestyle and a lower risk of anxiety was seen in both men and women."
You might object that perhaps the arrow of causation points the other way and that those struggling with anxiety are unlikely to train for rugged outdoor sporting events.
But even when the researchers excluded those diagnosed with anxiety issues within the first five years of the study to avoid this possibility, the results held. Keep active now and it really will massively reduce your chances of developing issues with anxiety for decades.
Elite female athletes buck the trend
There is one quirk in the data worth noting, however. While exercise reduced the risk of developing anxiety disorders for everyone, the very fastest female skiers did have notably higher levels of anxiety than less speedy female skiers. This suggests that high-performance athletics can actually increase women's chances of struggling with anxiety compared with more recreational activities, though elite athletes still have lower levels of anxiety than the inactive.
More research is needed to understand why this might be so (though one can imagine the particular pressures this group might be under), but in the meantime the good news is it probably affects very few of us. Unless you're in training to win marathons or make the Olympics, exercise is likely to offer unalloyed mental health benefits.
Good news for warm weather types, too
At this stage, those out there who, like me, prefer curling up with a book by the fire to venturing out in freezing conditions are probably all asking the same question. Does it have to be skiing? The good news is the answer is likely no.
When CNN spoke to James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University who wasn't involved in the research, he noted there are several possible reasons the skiers in the study were less likely to struggle with anxiety.
First, "exercise can be a mental distraction from worrisome thoughts," he notes, which suggests any sort of relatively high-intensity activity should do the trick. He also points to research showing that being out in nature also helps with anxiety, but you can be outside on skis or on a tropical beach.
The effect depends on location, not temperature.
Finally, Maddux points out that "engaging in a period of exercise can lead to a sense of accomplishment and a greater sense of self-efficacy (or self-confidence) that can lead to lower anxiety."
Again, any kind of challenging exercise is likely to produce this effect.
Happily for those of us who prefer to stay warm while we exercise, while different activities might have slightly different impacts depending on their location and intensity, these results decisively underline the usual advice about exercise and mental health. Working up a sweat regularly isn't just a modest mood booster. It's likely to have profound anxiety-busting effects both now and for years to come.
7 other things worth knowing today
I’ve been remiss: Health and environmental concerns are mounting in East Palestine, Ohio, after several derailed train cars released toxic fumes last week. On Feb. 3, about 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern train went off track in Ohio, causing a days-long fire in the area. Ten of the 50 derailed cars contained hazardous chemicals including butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, which were among combustible liquids that authorities feared could set off a major explosion. The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday and since then, there have been a growing number of reports about people experiencing a burning sensation in their eyes, animals falling ill and a strong odor lingering in the town. (NPR)
The White House is putting together a new UFO task force to study the potential security risks posed by new airborne objects detected in U.S. airspace. The group will be comprised of experts from the Pentagon, the FAA, the Homeland Security Administration and other government agencies to analyze unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) and determine whether they are a threat. (Daily Mail)
One of the first Black officers to lead a Special Forces team in combat will receive the nation's highest award for bravery in battle nearly 60 years after his commanding officer first recommended him for the prestigious Medal of Honor. President Joe Biden called retired U.S. Army Col. Paris Davis, now 83, “to inform him that he will receive the Medal of Honor for his remarkable heroism during the Vietnam War.” (AP)
How's this for a challenge? Sailing around the world, alone, mostly without 21st century technology like GPS (a few exceptions for emergencies, but using them disqualifies you). It's the Golden Globe Race: a solo, nonstop, unassisted circumnavigation, a feat first accomplished in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. Since then more people have flown in space than have completed the challenge. (NPR)
How Denver created "an army of bike lane advocates," in part by offering 4,700 $400 to $900 vouchers toward he purchase of an e-bike. (Bloomberg)
San Francisco has a new "empty homes tax" that was passed by 54.5% of voters in November on all homes left empty for more than 182 days. Now, a group of landlords and property owners have filed a lawsuit last week calling it unconstitutional and a violation of state law. (SF Chronicle)
I'm pretty sure I was at the DMV within a day or two at most of my 16th birthday way back when. But Gen Z isn't like that. “My parents put a lot of pressure on me to get one,” says a 24-year-old woman in Philadelphia. “But I haven’t needed one to this point. If there’s an emergency, I’ll call an Uber or 911.” (WashPost)