Simple, regular weight training with basic equipment appears to substantially reduce everyday anxiety.
There’s plenty of evidence that aerobic exercise, like running or biking, helps stave off depression and other mental ills, and that exercise can elevate feelings of happiness and contentment. But scientists only recently have begun to investigate whether and how lifting weights also might affect mental health.
These studies have had limited applicability, often involving complicated sessions of resistance exercise performed under the eyes of researchers, which is not how most of us work out. They also focused on somewhat narrow groups, such as men or women with a diagnosed mental health condition like depression or an anxiety disorder.
Now comes a study that widens the approach. In the study, which was published in October in Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Limerick in Ireland and other institutions decided to see if a simple version of weight training could have benefits for mood in people who already are in generally good mental health.
To find out, the researchers recruited 28 physically healthy young men and women and tested their current moods, with a particular emphasis on whether the volunteers felt anxious. All the participants scored in a healthy range on detailed anxiety questionnaires.
The scientists then asked half the volunteers to continue with their normal lives as a control group. The others began to weight train, a practice with which few were familiar.
The scientists had devised a simple training routine for them. After initial instruction on technique, the volunteers took up a basic twice-a-week program of lunges, lifts, squats and crunches, sometimes using dumbbells and other equipment.
Their training continued for eight weeks. At the end, the control group, for the most part, retained their original low levels of anxiety. They still felt about as tranquil as they had eight weeks before.
But the weight trainers scored about 20% better on the tests of anxiety. They had started with low levels of anxiety to begin with, but felt even less anxious afterward.
This effect was “larger than anticipated,” said Brett Gordon, a postdoctoral scholar at the Penn State Cancer Institute at Penn State College of Medicine, who was one of the authors of the study.
Strength boosts confidence
Gordon and his colleagues suspect increased physical and psychological potency figure in how weight training can affect anxiety. The lifters became stronger over time and were able to lift heavier weights. “Feelings of mastery may have occurred” then, he said, leaving people feeling generally more capable of coping.
Molecular changes in the lifters’ muscles and brains also probably occurred and contributed to improvements in their moods, he said, noting that future studies might help to detail some of those changes.
This experiment cannot tell us which training regimen might not be enough, too much or just the right amount to bolster mental health. It also does not prove that heading to the gym today can acutely soothe any mental turmoil we are feeling, because the improvements in the study were documented after weeks of training.
But if you are feeling tense and uptight, as so many of us are these days, becoming stronger probably is a worthwhile goal and need not be intimidating, Gordon said.
“There are numerous ways to strength-train with little to no equipment,” he said. “Try common body weight exercises, such as pushups, situps or squats, or use household items as weights.”