In recent years, the impact of physical fitness on mental health has garnered significant attention. Exercise has been touted as a natural mood enhancer and stress reliever, but a new study takes it a step further. Researchers explored the link between cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) and the use of antidepressants and anxiolytics in the general adult population. The findings suggest that maintaining a high level of CRF could be a powerful strategy for reducing the risk of needing medication to manage anxiety and depression.

The Study

The study, conducted in the third wave of the Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT3) in Norway, involved 32,603 participants. Instead of using traditional exercise tests, a non-exercise prediction model was employed to estimate CRF levels in the participants. Researchers then tracked the first purchase of antidepressants and anxiolytics using data from the Norwegian Prescription Database. The study’s findings were based on Cox regression analysis.

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Results: CRF and Medication Use

The results were nothing short of remarkable. For each 1-metabolic equivalent of task (MET) increase in CRF, there was a 4% reduced risk of purchasing antidepressant or anxiolytic medication during the follow-up period (HR 0.96, 95% CI 0.94–0.98). In simpler terms, higher CRF was associated with a lower likelihood of needing medication to manage mental health issues.

Sex and Age Disparities

The study also delved into gender and age differences. Men who fell within the intermediate and high CRF tertiles had a significantly lower risk of medication purchase, with HR values of 0.87 (95% CI 0.79–0.96) and 0.87 (95% CI 0.78–0.96), respectively. This suggests that the protective effect of CRF against medication use may be more pronounced in men.

Furthermore, age played a crucial role. Younger adults (20 to <30 years old) and middle-aged adults (30 to <65 years old) in the intermediate and high CRF tertiles also exhibited a reduced risk of medication purchase. However, this protective effect was not observed in older adults (≥65 years old). This highlights the potential for CRF to be a more effective preventive measure for anxiety and depression among younger and middle-aged individuals.

While this study provides valuable insights into the relationship between CRF and mental health medication use, it’s important to note that the data only considered medication purchases, not actual usage. Future research could benefit from tracking medication adherence and exploring the reasons behind these trends.

This study underscores the significance of cardiovascular fitness in mental health. Higher CRF levels were associated with a decreased risk of needing antidepressants and anxiolytics, with a particularly strong effect in men and younger adults. It suggests that investing in physical fitness may be a proactive approach to protecting against anxiety and depression, potentially reducing the reliance on medication. So, for fitness professionals, this study provides compelling evidence for the pivotal role they play in promoting not only physical health but mental well-being too.


  1. Audun Havnen, Ekaterina Zotcheva, Ottar Bjerkeset, Xuemei Sui, Linda Ernstsen. Cardiorespiratory fitness and incident use of anxiolytics and antidepressants in adults. A linkage study between HUNT and the Norwegian Prescription Database. Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 339, 2023 Click here to review the full research article

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