These Simple Exercises Treat Anxiety as Well as Drugs Do

Mindfulness practices also associated with fewer adverse events, research shows
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 24, 2023 10:30 AM CST
These Simple Exercises Treat Anxiety as Well as Drugs Do
A group performs breathing and movement exercises as part of a class.   (Getty Images/Ridofranz)

For the first time, research has shown that low- or no-cost mindfulness exercises can be just as effective at treating anxiety as medication. A study published in November in JAMA Psychiatry shows those instructed to become aware of one's breath, focus on different parts of the body, and move with awareness of the body experienced the same decrease in anxiety as those who received the anti-anxiety medication escitalopram, better known as Lexapro, reports the Washington Post. To begin the eight-week study, 276 adults were split into two groups, one to receive 10mg to 20mg of escitalopram and one to complete 45 minutes of daily exercises, a weekly 2.5-hour class with a mindfulness teacher, and a one-day mindfulness retreat.

To start, both groups recorded a similar anxiety score out of seven: 4.51 for the medication group and 4.44 for the mindfulness group, amounting to a moderate level of anxiety. At the end of the study, both scores had declined 20% to 3.09 on average, signaling a mild level of anxiety, per the Post. Though mindfulness practices have long been known to help with anxiety, this is the first time such treatments have been shown to be as effective as standard first-line treatments, study author and psychiatrist Elizabeth Hoge, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at Georgetown University, tells the Post. However, a 2011 study found an eight-week mindfulness program was as effective at preventing a relapse of depression as antidepressants, per CNN.

"It's like a skill you practice," Hoge tells CNN. "People learn to have a different relationship with their thoughts ... to just let go of the thoughts." She notes mindfulness interventions will be better than medication for some people, particularly those who experience negative side effects. According to the study, 78.6% of participants randomized to the escitalopram group experienced at least one adverse event, and 8% dropped out of the study. On the other hand, just 15.4% of participants randomized to the mindfulness group experienced at least one adverse event and none dropped out. "We can't yet predict who will do better with which type of treatment," Hoge tells the Post. "But there's nothing that says you couldn't do both at the same time." (More mindfulness stories.)

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