New research reveals resistance exercise training can have a life-changing effect on the mind, able to relieve anxiety in young adults. After a whirlwind year that's put mental health through the wringer, these findings give people actionable steps to strengthen muscles — and help their brain too.
People should be encouraged to perform resistance exercise — sometimes known as strength training —involving major muscle groups two or more days a week, study co-author Brett Gordon tells Inverse. Gordon is a researcher at the Penn State College of Medicine.
"Equipment can be helpful, but not required," Gordon says. "People can lift weights, use resistance bands, or use body-weight exercises such as push-ups, lunges, squats, etcetera."
These findings were published in October in the journal Scientific Reports.
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HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — Much has been made of the mood-boosting effects of aerobic exercise — like running, swimming, and biking. This scientific team, however, explored whether a different type of exercise — one that includes crunches and lifting weights — can make a meaningful difference in anxiety levels. Critically, this was explored using a sample of mentally healthy young people.
To answer this question, researchers recruited 28 young adult men and women between the ages of 18 and 40. The participants filled out questionnaires designed to evaluate their mental health; they were asked to report on their levels of fatigue, energy, worry, and depressive symptoms. None of the participants met the clinical criteria for generalized anxiety disorder.
The group was randomly split, assigned to complete a basic strength training program, or continue with life as usual. Either intervention lasted eight weeks.
The strength training group was instructed to hit the weight room or do a series of bodyweight strength training exercises twice per week. In these sessions, the young people did squats, planks, lunges, or crunches, sometimes including dumbbells or kettlebells. The workout routine was designed to mimic the World Health Organization and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) strength training guidelines.
Over the eight weeks, the group worked up to completing two sets of between eight and 12 repetitions of eight exercises before either getting tired and struggling to continue or failing to complete a repetition. Gym sessions were supervised by the researchers.
The eight exercises were:
- Barbell squat
- Barbell bench press
- Hexagon bar deadlift
- Seated dumbbell shoulder lateral raise
- Barbell bent-over rows
- Dumbbell lunges
- Seated dumbbell curls
- Abdominal crunches.
Throughout the study, the researchers evaluated the participants' anxiety levels. In turn, they found the group that didn't add strength training to their routine gained no chill. They didn't experience spikes or reductions to their anxiety levels during or after the eight weeks wrapped up.
The muscle-building group, meanwhile, did experience a difference — both physically and mentally. These participants showed large significant improvements in strength. And while the weight lifters' worries didn't magically disappear, this group performed about 20 percent better on tests of anxiety.
The team expected reductions in anxiety to occur, but the reductions were "slightly larger than expected," Gordon explains.
"We did not expect a lot of change in worry symptoms, as this sample specifically included young adults without clinically relevant anxiety pathology."
WHY IT'S A HACK — This study — and other growing evidence — suggests mixing up your workout routine with weight lifting or bodyweight exercises can help you get a handle on anxiety. And while the findings apply directly to young, mentally healthy adults, Gordon says other data suggests strength training improves anxiety and depressive symptoms among older adults, too.
"Physical activity, including resistance exercise training, has a myriad of positive effects on both mental and physical health, including reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms," Gordon says.
This study matters when it comes to longevity because anxiety doesn't just make you feel miserable. Mental health conditions wear on the body over time: Some studies suggest anxiety and depression can be as harmful health-wise as obesity or smoking, predicting conditions ranging from heart disease and high blood pressure to arthritis, headaches, back pain, and stomach problems.
Anxiety disorders are the sixth leading cause of global disability, Gordon says, and are also "frequently unrecognized and undertreated in healthcare settings."
To help soothe anxiety, people have long relied on exercise. That's because moving the body releases feel-good chemicals (like endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin), can improve self-esteem, relieve stress, and drive positive structural changes in the brain.
When this strength training study, additional factors may be at play. People might just expect to feel better mentally after a session. They also experienced extra social interaction and support working with the researchers during their workouts.
SCIENCE IN ACTION — In this study, getting weight lifting's mood-boosting benefits didn't require committing to daily HIIT training or two-a-day sessions in the gym. Rather, people experienced a significant reduction in anxiety from two relatively basic strength-training sessions a week.
The ACSM's strength training guidelines can provide a jumping-off point.
HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 🏋🏽♀️🏋🏽♀️ (Two strength-training sessions a week can help people manage anxiety)
Abstract: This trial quantified the effects of ecologically-valid resistance exercise training (RET) on anxiety and worry symptoms among young adults. Young adults not meeting criteria for subclinical, or analogue Generalized Anxiety Disorder (AGAD) were randomized to an eight-week RET intervention, or eight-week wait-list. AGAD status was determined using validated cut-scores for both the Psychiatric Diagnostic Screening Questionnaire-Generalized Anxiety Disorder subscale (≥ 6) and Penn State Worry Questionnaire (≥ 45). The primary outcome was anxiety symptoms measured with the Trait Anxiety subscale of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The RET was designed according to World Health Organization and American College of Sports Medicine guidelines. RM-ANCOVA examined differences between RET and wait-list over time. Significant interactions were decomposed with simple effects analysis. Hedges’ d effect sizes quantified magnitude of differences in change between RET and wait-list. Twenty-eight participants (64% female) fully engaged in the trial (mean age: 26.0 ± 6.2y, RET: n = 14; Wait-list: n = 14). A significant group X time interaction was found for anxiety symptoms (F(3,66) = 3.60, p ≤ 0.019; d = 0.85, 95%CI: 0.06 to 1.63). RET significantly reduced anxiety symptoms from baseline to post-intervention (mean difference = − 7.89, p ≤ 0.001). No significant interaction was found for worry (F(3,69) = 0.79, p ≥ 0.50; d = − 0.22, 95%CI: − 0.96 to 0.53). Ecologically-valid RET significantly improves anxiety symptoms among young adults.