Holiday Stress Cranking Up Your Anxiety? Turn Up the Intensity!

anxiety intensity Nov 23, 2021

Study finds higher intensity exercise helps relieve anxiety.

I am a huge proponent of high-intensity exercise, especially short, sharp high-intensity training like sprint intervals of 30 seconds or less because it's like powerful medicine.

Sprint interval training (SIT) fires up your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are those quick burst, high-energy fibers that generally sit on the sidelines during endurance exercise. (They’re the first to go with disuse and age.) SIT training also strengthens and increases the amount of your energy-producing mitochondria, improves insulin sensitivity, and trains your body to burn more fat for energy when you’re not exercising. Research shows SIT also helps increase lean muscle mass, as well as improve power and cardiovascular fitness.

Now research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests strenuous exercise may also be superior for lowering anxiety—something we all could use, especially this time of year!

The study was based on 286 adults who lived with anxiety for at least 10 years. Their average age was 39 and 70 percent of them were women. Researchers assigned them to one of three groups: A 12-week group exercise program with low-intensity exercise three times a week; a 12-week group exercise program with moderate to high-intensity training three times a week, or a single session with a physiotherapist who provided information about the benefits of physical activity and the general exercise guidelines.

After the three-month trial, both exercise groups enjoyed a significant reduction in anxiety compared to the group who just learned about the benefits of exercise. Most of the participants in the exercise groups went from a baseline level of moderate to high anxiety to low anxiety by study’s end. Those doing high-intensity exercise got even better results. The more intensely they exercised, the lower their anxiety. 

“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely they exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” Malin Henriksson, doctoral student at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, specialist in general medicine in the Halland Region, and the study's first author said in a press release.

Another perk of this type of training is it takes very little time, which, when you’re juggling work, travel, visiting with family and friends for the holidays, and getting ready for the holidays is a welcome benefit.

You can do SIT training on a bike, running, or on any cardio equipment with your classic Tabata protocol:

  1. Warm-up.
  2. Then go as hard as possible for 20 seconds.
  3. Go super easy for 10 seconds.
  4. Repeat six to eight times.
  5. Recover for 4 to 5 minutes with super easy activity.
  6. Repeat another set.
  7. Work up to 3 sets.
  8. Cool down.

Or you can do a kettlebell swing HIIT workout, after a warmup:

  1. Do kettlebell swings for 20 seconds.
  2. Rest 10 seconds.
  3. Repeat six to eight times.
  4. Cool down.

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