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Physical activity a buffer for those at-risk for panic

July 13, 2011

Findings suggest that high levels of regular physical activity may be a useful intervention to prevent panic and related disordersRegular exercise may be a useful strategy for helping prevent the development of panic and related disorders, a new study suggests.

People with an intense fear of the nausea, racing heart, dizziness, stomachaches and shortness of breath that accompany panic — known as "high anxiety sensitivity" — reacted with less anxiety to a panic-inducing stressor if they had been engaging in high levels of physical activity, said researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the University of Vermont in Burlington.

"Anxiety sensitivity is an established risk factor for the development of panic and related disorders," said SMU psychologist Jasper Smits, lead author on the research. "This study suggests that this risk factor may be less influential among persons who routinely engage in high levels of physical activity."

There is already good evidence that exercise can be of help to people who suffer from depression and anxiety problems, say the researchers.

"We're not suggesting, 'Exercise instead of pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy,'" Smits said. "Exercise is a useful alternative, particularly for those without access to traditional treatments. Primary care physicians already prescribe exercise for general health, so exercise may have the advantage of helping reach more people in need of treatment for depression and anxiety."

Smits reported the findings in "The Interplay Between Physical Activity and Anxiety Sensitivity in Fearful Responding to Carbon Dioxide Challenge," an article that was published online and is in press with the scientific journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Read the full story at the SMU Research blog.

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