Anxiety is a common, and often untreated, side effect of cancer. The stress of a cancer diagnosis, fear of the unknown, and uncertainty for the future are just a few things that can cause anxiety for patients and survivors, as well as for loved ones and caregivers.
However, exercise can be a viable, non-pharmacological option to treat anxiety, say researchers of a review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in February. The authors reviewed 40 studies involving 2,914 sedentary patients with various chronic diseases, including cancer, and found that regular exercise decreased symptoms of anxiety by about 20 percent. Exercise sessions of 30 minutes were more effective than shorter periods.
“The analysis showed that exercise training reduces anxiety among patients with cancer,” says Matthew Herring, the doctoral student conducting the review. “There had been some observations that there wasn’t a consistent improvement, but our analysis differed because it included those exercising during treatment and after. We are showing that exercise not only can improve anxiety in those going through treatment, but also mood during survivorship.”
Patients don’t have to join a gym or expensive classes, Herring says, pointing out that walking is effective. “The key take home is that exercise may be an acceptable and effective treatment for reducing anxiety,” Herring says. “The level and intensity did not present itself as a significant moderator. Any physical activity was better than none in reducing anxiety.”
While there is significant evidence that exercise helps depression, it is possible that the association is not a cause and effect. Herring says exercise and anxiety had not been well studied, and his next goal is to take evidence presented in the review and others and develop a large randomized clinical trial to examine the overall effects in understudied illnesses such as cancer, epilepsy, lupus, and others.