Mental illness is increasing in society and in an attempt to curb this trend, the government is investing in, among other things, getting Swedes to move more. New research from Lund University suggests that physical activity could be the right way forward.
“Our findings support the idea behind society's efforts to improve mental health. We should look more closely at how a physically active lifestyle interacts with other factors in promoting mental well-being”, says Tomas Deierborg, professor of experimental physiology, who led the study.
The study followed almost 200,000 people who participated in a long-distance skiing event. They were then matched with a control group and monitored for up to 21 years.
“The skiers had an almost 60 percent lower risk of developing anxiety compared to the rest of the population. This was consistent for both men and women”, says Martina Svensson, first author of the article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Among the skiers, it was also investigated whether the ability to perform well affected the risk of developing anxiety. The fastest female skiers had almost twice as great a risk of developing anxiety compared to those who were the slowest. Despite this, the fastest women still had a lower risk compared to the rest of the non-skiing female population. In men, there was no such connection.
“There are several studies that show that those having a physically active lifestyle have a lower risk of suffering from anxiety. What we see in this study is that among active women, a very high performance is not necessarily the most beneficial, although it still seems better than very low activity levels. The key point here is that all physically active groups had a lower risk, and everybody should therefore be encouraged to lead a physically active lifestyle”, says Martina Svensson.
The higher risk of anxiety in the fastest female skiers disappeared if those who developed anxiety in the first five years were excluded. This suggests that it does not have to be the physical exercise itself that led to poorer mental health in this group, but perhaps rather that the high level of exercise can at the same time be linked to other driving forces and personality traits that do not benefit mental health, say the researchers behind the study.
“The study can not establish either, but it indicates that factors linked to performance level can have as great an impact on the mental state as the physical activity itself. These aspects need to be investigated in more detail with regard to the connection between physical activity and mental health, especially in women”, says Martina Svensson and continues:
“Other studies suggest that outdoor exercise can provide extra benefits for mental well-being, in terms of being in nature and having more light exposure. We do not examine any of these aspects in our study. However, studies that have examined other types of physical activity show similar results. Therefore, it is fairly safe to assume that it is the physical activity itself that is important”, concludes Martina Svensson.