Should we prescribe individual exercise plans for people with stress and anxiety? | News and Events

Should we prescribe individual exercise plans for people with stress and anxiety?

By Joseph Firth

New findings support the view that exercise helps reduce anxiety symptoms, with no evidence for individual differences in the benefits.

There is a growing trend towards precision medicine and personalised prescribing. That is, tailoring treatments – whether therapeutic, lifestyle or medication-based – based on a person’s genetics, clinical features, biomarkers and personal preferences.

We also know that physical exercise is good for us. Within mental health circles, there is growing evidence that exercise can be used a preventive and supplemental treatment for people with anxiety and stress related disorders. This is important, as not everyone responds the same to psychotherapy or medication – some of the most widely available treatments for anxiety and stress disorders, and furthermore exercise is important for maintain physical health. However, when it comes to prescribing exercise, there are still many unknowns.

Anxiety and stress-related disorders are among the most common mental health conditions, and their prevalence may have increased post-COVID. We are therefore always looking for innovative ways to help people with these disorders and prevent their onset. When it comes to exercise, there is an underlying assumption that there are individual differences in how people respond. However, little is known about individual differences in the anxiety reducing effects of exercise, especially in people with anxiety and stress disorders. This is what we set out to investigate in our latest analysis.

We found that exercise did help reduce symptoms of anxiety. Those who took part in aerobic exercise could expect around a 20 percent reduction in their symptoms. Strength training predicted around a 10 percent reduction. Along with this, we found no compelling evidence of individual differences in these effects – suggesting that these forms of exercise may be equally beneficial across all individuals experiencing these conditions.

While more research is needed to confirm our findings, our study suggests that exercise recommendations for people with anxiety and stress disorders do not need to be highly individualised. Instead, physical activity guidelines for the general population could be applied. Future research could also look at how to develop customised exercise programs which are maximally engaging for individuals with anxiety disorders, and furthermore how we can best implement such interventions within mental healthcare.

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