It's a tough time for many of us at the moment. The pandemic, national lockdowns, and lack of social contact have taken a toll on mental health worldwide. The good news is lifting weights may be able to help. A new study has shown a significant link between resistance training and a reduction in levels of anxiety.
The link between exercise and improved mental health has been well-documented for many years now. However, most past studies looking at the effects of exercise on our mood have focused on aerobic activity, such as running, swimming, or biking.
Studies looking specifically into the mental health benefits of resistance training are less common, but not unheard of. For example, A 2018 meta-analysis (a study of studies) found that lifting weights can reduce the risk of depression.
The issue with many of these studies is that participants are often asked to
participate in rigorous and complex strength training programmes. In other words, programmes that would be very difficult to follow for the average person balancing work, family, and social commitments.
This is what makes a recent study from the University of Limerick particularly interesting. Researchers aimed to investigate whether a simple, manageable resistance training programme could have a significant impact on participants’ mental health.
So how did the study work?
A group of physically healthy young men and women were assessed for their mood and levels of anxiety and split into two subsets. The first group – the control - was asked to carry on their life as normal. The second group was given a strength training programme to follow. Most participants had little to no experience with resistance training before the study.
Following advice from the WHO, participants received a resistance training programme including compound and isolation movements, using both free weights and their bodyweight. The programme consisted of two resistance sessions per week and lasted for 8 weeks. Both groups were then monitored to track any changes in their anxiety levels.
And the results?
As expected, anxiety in the control group stayed fairly constant, changing little from pre-study levels. The strength training group, on the other hand, recorded an average 20% improvement in their anxiety levels.
Brett Gordon, a scholar at the Penn State College of Medicine, was co-author of the study. He was surprised by the results, saying they were ‘even bigger than expected’. He also found that the mental health benefits recorded were greater than in similar studies involving aerobic exercise.
The University of Limerick study was designed to examine whether lifting weights can change our mood, but not how this change occurs. Gordon and his co-authors believe that ‘physical and psychological potency’ is at play. Whilst progressing through the resistance training programme, participants became stronger, and thus able to lift more weight. The psychological benefits of this achievement may have played a part in improving mood and reducing levels of anxiety. “Participants may have experienced feelings of mastery,” says Gordon.
The authors of the study also believe that resistance training could have had a more direct effect on the mood of participants, causing physical changes in the chemistry of the brain.
Now, this study has its limitations, as does any. For example, due to the participants being exclusively healthy young people, it doesn’t necessarily tell us everything about the potential benefits for anyone outside of that demographic. It also can’t tell us exact details about how much resistance training - or what type of strength training - is going to yield the best results when it comes to improving our mental health.
But what it does indicate is that if we are looking to improve our mental health, reduce feelings of anxiety and boost our mood, strength training is probably a great place to start. Gordon believes the key is taking the first small step. “You don’t need a gym to get started,” he says. “Try bodyweight exercises like push-ups, crunches, or lunges”.