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Don’t worry, get active, study says

If you suffer from excessive, uncontrollable worry, perhaps the best way to treat it is through exercise, a recent study at the University of Georgia indicates.

About 3 percent of Americans, most of them women, suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, which is defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health as “a pattern of frequent, constant worry and anxiety over many different activities and events.”

The main symptom is almost constant worry or tension, even when there is little or no cause. Other symptoms include fatigue, irritability, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.

Doctors aren’t sure what causes this, but an imbalance in brain chemicals is the prime suspect. Others are genetics, life experiences and stress. Some physical health conditions, such as heart disease and menopause, also have been associated with this anxiety disorder.

But in the Georgia study, psychologists found a “significant” decline in worry symptoms among the exercisers and “moderate to large” improvements in other symptoms, such as irritability, feelings of tension and pain.

The improvement was greater among women who lifted weights.

This was the first randomized, controlled trial to focus on the effects of exercise on people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder.

Researchers at the University of Georgia’s College of Education studied 30 women diagnosed with this disorder. All were sedentary. Their ages ranged from 18 to 37.

Half of them were assigned to a control group, half to a six-week program of either resistance or aerobic exercise.

Afterward, all were examined by psychologists who did not know which group the women they examined were in. The findings were published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics’s Nov. 22 issue.

Half the women receiving exercise therapy also were taking medication to reduce the disorder’s effects. Exercise reduced anxiety to the same degree whether the women were taking medication or not, the researchers found.

The drugs used to treat the anxiety disorder tend to be expensive and to produce unpleasant side effects.

“Our findings are particularly exciting because they suggest that exercise training is a feasible, well-tolerated potential adjuvant therapy with low risk,” said Matthew Herring, who led the study while a doctoral candidate in kinesiology.