Britain is becoming a nation of pill poppers, with GPs too quick to prescribe anti-depressants, mental health experts warn.
The reliance on prescription medication comes as the study, commissioned by healthcare charity Nuffield Health, indicates mental illness is also on the rise.
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A survey of 2,000 people showed 44% experienced anxiety symptoms regularly, up 33% when the recession hit five years ago.
The research suggests the number of people experiencing low mood, an early indicator of depression, has also increased, jumping from 31% to 39%.
It showed only 1% of those who visited their GP were told to exercise to alleviate low mood or anxiety, compared with 46% who were prescribed anti-depressants.
Nuffield Health medical director Dr Davina Deniszczyc said the trend indicated a "ticking mental health time bomb in the UK".
"The compelling evidence that physical activity can play an important role in both treating and alleviating early symptoms of mental ill health isn't sufficiently filtering through to front line and primary care services," she said.
"Nuffield Health is calling for all GPs to treat mental health as they would any other condition that can benefit from treatment with exercise - like chronic heart disease, diabetes and obesity for example."
The push for less reliance on anti-depressants is supported by those surveyed, with only 4% saying they would prefer to be prescribed medication over exercise, if given the choice.
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The study also showed 76% thought exercise lifted their mood and 72% were aware it was clinically proven to manage moderate anxiety or low mood.
Beth Murphy, Head of Information at the mental health charity Mind, said prescription drugs were often used because there were long waits for talking therapies.
"Mind has found that people who do regular exercise or take part in ecotherapy activities such as gardening can improve their mental well-being and reduce feelings of depression," she said.
"We urge health professionals to take alternatives such as exercise seriously and consider a range of treatments that offer more choice for individuals."
Almost half (46%) of those surveyed said financial worries were a key contributor to low mood, 43% identified family issues and 36% said problems at work played a role.
Only 8% said ill health affected their mood.