Individuals with higher anxiety sensitivity tend to be less physically active

People with heightened levels of anxiety sensitivity tend to engage in less physical activity, according to new research published in Mental Health and Physical Activity. The more intense the physical activity, the stronger the connection between anxiety sensitivity and being less active.

Physical activity is a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. We’ve long known that regular exercise can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, improve mental well-being, and boost overall quality of life. But what happens when anxiety sensitivity enters the picture?

Anxiety sensitivity is the fear of anxiety-related bodily sensations, such as a racing heart or shortness of breath. It’s a concept that’s been widely studied in the context of anxiety disorders, but previous studies have yielded inconsistent results regarding the relationship between anxiety sensitivity and physical activity.

“I have been studying anxiety sensitivity (the fear of arousal related sensations) for about 30 years,” said study author Sherry H. Stewart, a professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair at Dalhousie University. “My research has shown that people with high anxiety sensitivity tend to engage in unhealthy behaviours like coping motivated substance use. One of their unhealthy behaviors revealed in our prior studies was the avoidance of physical activity.”

“This is perhaps unsurprising since physical activity brings on arousal sensations like increased heart rate and sweating, which they fear. So we wanted to look across studies in a meta-analysis (a quantitative research synthesis) to see if indeed anxiety sensitivity does relate to avoidance of physical activity and under what conditions.”

To conduct their meta-analysis, a statistical method that combines the results of multiple studies, the researchers scoured nine major research databases for studies. To be included in the meta-analysis, studies had to meet specific criteria. For example, they had to employ validated measures of anxiety sensitivity and assess physical activity in some form. The final analysis included 43 separate studies, encompassing a total of 10,303 participants.

The meta-analysis uncovered a small but significant negative relationship between anxiety sensitivity and physical activity. In simpler terms, individuals with higher anxiety sensitivity tend to engage in less physical activity, while those with lower anxiety sensitivity tend to be more physically active. This counterintuitive connection highlights the impact of fear-related sensations on our choices.

The researchers delved deeper into anxiety sensitivity by exploring its various domains. They found that physical concerns (related to anxiety about bodily sensations) and cognitive concerns (related to anxious thoughts) were significantly and inversely linked to physical activity. In contrast, social concerns (related to anxiety about social situations) did not show a significant relationship with physical activity.

In addition, the researchers found that the strength of the relationship between anxiety sensitivity and physical activity depended on the intensity of physical activity. Low-intensity activities, such as walking, did not significantly impact the relationship. However, as physical activity intensity increased, so did the magnitude of the inverse relationship. This suggests that more intense activities, like vigorous exercise, may be particularly challenging for those with high anxiety sensitivity.

“We found that collapsed across all studies in the literature there was a significant relationship between anxiety sensitivity and less involvement in physical activity,” Stewart told PsyPost. “We also found that this relationship was strongest for vigorous physical activity. In other words, people with higher levels of anxiety sensitivity are particularly likely to avoid high intensity physical activity.”

While this study offers valuable insights, it’s not without limitations. First and foremost, it’s essential to remember that the study’s cross-sectional nature means it cannot establish causality. However, previous research has provided evidence of a bidirectional relationship: anxiety sensitivity can hinder physical activity but physical activity can reduce anxiety sensitivity.

“These findings suggest that people with lower levels of physical activity are more likely to benefit from the positive mental and physical benefits of exercise,” said Chris DeWolfe, the first author of the study. “One way that exercise can benefit their mental health is by reducing their sensitivity to anxiety, which is a risk factor for a number of psychological concerns.”

Additionally, the study focused primarily on anxiety sensitivity and overall physical activity levels. It didn’t delve into other psychological mechanisms that might be involved.

“The next question to be addressed is whether this relationship is accounted by fear-mediated avoidance,” Stewart said. “In other words, are anxiety sensitive people’s lower physical activity levels occurring because they fear the arousal sensations brought on by exercise?”

The study, “Anxiety sensitivity and physical activity are inversely related: A meta-analytic review“, was authored by Christopher E.J. DeWolfe, Megan K. Galbraith, Martin M. Smith, Margo C. Watt, Janine V. Olthuis, Simon B. Sherry, and Sherry H. Stewart.


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