Associations of physical activity with anxiety symptoms and status: results from The Irish longitudinal study on ageing

Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 2019 Aug;28(4):436-445. doi: 10.1017/S204579601800001X. Epub 2018 Jan 31.


Aims: Anxiety is debilitating and associated with numerous mental and physical comorbidities. There is a need to identify and investigate low-risk prevention and treatment strategies. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between different volumes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (PA) and anxiety symptoms and status among older adults in Ireland.

Methods: Participants (n = 4175; 56.8% female) aged ⩾50 years completed the International PA Questionnaire (IPAQ) at baseline, and the anxiety subscale of the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale at baseline and follow-up (2009-2013). Participants were classified according to meeting World Health Organisation PA guidelines, and divided into IPAQ categories. Respondents without anxiety at baseline (n = 3165) were included in prospective analyses. Data were analysed in 2017.

Results: Anxiety symptoms were significantly higher among females than males (p < 0.001). Models were adjusted for age, sex, waist circumference, social class, smoking status and pain. In cross-sectional analyses, meeting PA guidelines was associated with 9.3% (OR = 0.91, 95% confidence interval 0.78-1.06) lower odds of anxiety. Compared with the inactive group, the minimally- and very-active groups were associated with 8.4% (OR = 0.92, 0.76-1.10) and 18.8% (OR = 0.81, 0.67-0.98) lower odds of anxiety, respectively. In prospective analyses, meeting guidelines was associated with 6.3% (OR = 0.94, 0.63-1.40) reduced odds of anxiety. Compared with the inactive group, the minimally and very-active groups were associated with 43.5% (OR = 1.44, 0.89-2.32) increased, and 4.3% (OR = 0.96, 0.56-1.63) reduced odds of anxiety. The presence of pain, included in models as a covariate, was associated with a 108.7% (OR = 2.09, 1.80-2.42) increase in odds of prevalent anxiety, and a 109.7% (OR = 2.10, 1.41-3.11) increase in odds of incident anxiety.

Conclusion: High volumes of PA are cross-sectionally associated with lower anxiety symptoms and status, with a potential dose-response apparent. However, significant associations were not observed in prospective analyses. The low absolute number of incident anxiety cases (n = 109) potentially influenced these findings. Further, as older adults may tend to experience and/or report more somatic anxiety symptoms, and the HADS focuses primarily on cognitive symptoms, it is plausible that the HADS was not an optimal measure of anxiety symptoms in the current population.

Keywords: Anxiety; Ireland; cross-sectional; elderly; longitudinal; physical activity.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Anxiety / epidemiology*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / epidemiology*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ireland / epidemiology
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales