Physical activity and anxiety: Dose-response versus mindset?


There is a large body of evidence suggesting an inverse relationship between physical activity and anxiety (WHO, 2022). In explaining this relationship, researchers typically think in terms of dose-response (Kim et al., 2020). However, the relationship between physical activity and anxiety may be more complex, based on emerging research proposing that about half of the psychological benefits of physical activity may result from the belief that one is being active (Lindheimer et al., 2015). As one example, individuals who held a mindset that the amount of physical activity they engaged in was adequate for health reported better perceived health, regardless of actual activity levels (Zahrt & Crum, 2020). Following this line of research, the current study examined which had a stronger relationship with anxiety – physical activity or mindset about the adequacy of one’s activity for health. University students (N= 666) completed an online questionnaire assessing aerobic activity (PASB-Q, Fowles et al, 2017), perceived activity adequacy mindset (Zahrt & Crum, 2020), and generalized anxiety symptoms (GAD-7, Spitzer et al., 2006). Results from a hierarchical regression revealed a significant relationship between activity and anxiety (β= -0.094, p = 0.013) while controlling for gender on step 1. However, activity disappeared (β = -.005, p = .907) as a predictor of anxiety when mindset was entered on step 2 (β = -.213, p = <0.001) where perceiving activity as adequate for health was associated with less anxiety. This provides preliminary evidence that activity mindset may be important to consider when examining the activity/anxiety relationship.