Can Strength Training Calm Your Anxiety?

Can Strength Training Calm Your Anxiety?
Science says hitting the gym might be the key to keeping anxiety and depression at bay.

Anxiety and depression are two mental health issues that are often associated. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, but it becomes unhealthy when as it appears to take on a life of its own and generalizes to your body and mind.1 Symptoms may include rapid heart rate, muscle aches and pains, chronic headaches and muscle tension.

In the past, the number of people suffering from depression outranked other mental health issues. In 2012, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated 5 percent of the world and U.S. populations suffered from depression.2 However, the number of people struggling with anxiety now outpaces those suffering from depression. More than half of American college students3 now report experiencing anxiety, and anxiety has become 800 percent more prevalent than cancer.4

Research5 and clinical practitioners6 have found exercise and physical activity are associated with improved physical and mental health, cognitive function and life satisfaction.7 Recent research8 now links strength training to some of the same improvements in health, with the added benefits associated with strength training, including firm muscle tone, improved balance and antiaging effects.

Resistance Training May Reduce Your Anxiety

A meta-analysis of 16 previously published studies evaluated the effect of strength training, or resistance exercises,9 on anxiety. Conclusions were drawn from results using 922 participants assigned to engage in resistance training or to be inactive during the study period. Results from the analysis demonstrated that resistance training was associated with a reduction in symptoms of anxiety, whether or not the participant had a diagnosed mental health disorder.

The greatest reduction in anxiety symptoms occurred in individuals who did not report physical or psychological symptoms associated with their anxiety. Past research that demonstrated a positive impact on mental health symptoms from exercise was based on cardiovascular exercise. The lead study author, Brett Gordon, physical education and sports researcher from Limerick University in Ireland, commented on the results of the study, saying:

“RET (resistance exercise training) significantly reduced anxiety in both healthy participants and those with a physical or mental illness, and the effect size of these reductions is comparable to that of frontline treatments such as medication and psychotherapy. RET is a low-cost behavior with minimal risk, and can be an effective tool to reduce anxiety for healthy and ill alike.”

The study focused only on resistance training. Thus, the researchers were unable to make a comparison between results from aerobic training and resistance training, or determine if a combination offered even greater results. In the current meta-analysis, the participants did strength training two to five days each week for an average of 11 weeks.

There Is Not Just One Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is important as it signals danger, increases your level of alertness and clears your mind to prepare for action. Everyone experiences anxiety and nervousness that is situation-based. In other words, your anxiety is centered around a present event or situation.

Research demonstrates the positive effect exercise and strength training has on normal levels of anxiety. However, psychologists also incorporate exercise in the treatment of individuals suffering from anxiety disorders. In fact, regular exercise may work as well, or better than, medication to reduce symptoms.10

Anxiety disorders are different from regular situation-based anxiety as they involve far greater than normal levels of nervousness and excessive fear or anxiety.11 Studies show those who exercise regularly are 25 percent less likely to experience anxiety, and exercise may quickly elevate a depressed mood.12 The following three types of anxiety disorders13 may respond well to consistent exercise.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. This condition is diagnosed after displaying excessive anxiety for several months and you have physical symptoms that may include muscle tension, easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability and difficulty sleeping.
  • Panic disorder. Individuals suffer unexpected and recurrent panic attacks that may include physical symptoms of a rapid heart rate, intense fear, being out of control, shaking and shortness of breath.
  • Social anxiety disorder. This is also called social phobia and is marked by a fear of performance in which they feel they may be judged, rejected or may offend others.

Strength Training May Turn Back the Clock

The benefits of strength training go well beyond toning muscles and helping reduce any anxiety you may be feeling. As you age, you’ll experience a natural loss of skeletal muscles, called sarcopenia.14 This is one of the more important factors in the loss of independence in older adults and functional decline. Sarcopenia is usually defined by losses of muscle strength and muscle mass. Contributing factors to this loss are hormonal changes, neurological decline, poor nutrition and declining activity.

Although pharmaceutical companies race to develop a “fountain of youth” pill that may slow your muscle loss and improve your health, the gold standard and safest way to stave off age-related decline will always be exercise and good nutrition. You have the power to turn back the clock and prevent muscle atrophy without ever leaving your home. In one study,15 led by Irina Conboy, Ph.D., researchers were able to demonstrate reversal of muscle atrophy in 70-year-old participants. She commented:16

“Our study shows that the ability of old human muscle to be maintained and repaired by muscle stem cells can be restored to youthful vigor given the right mix of biochemical signals. This provides promising new targets for forestalling the debilitating muscle atrophy that accompanies aging, and perhaps other tissue degenerative disorders as well.”

Strength training is a weight-bearing exercise and thus also reduces your risk of osteoporotic changes to your bone. This may help prevent a broken hip, wrist or vertebrae from calcium loss and bone thinning as you age. While recovery from a hip fracture may be arduous, the risk of death in the year following the break may be as high as 58 percent.17 Medical expenses of osteoporosis and subsequent broken bones incur a large financial burden, costing nearly $16 billion using 2002 population samples.18

As resistance training boosts your muscle mass and strength, it also helps boost your metabolism and maintain weight loss, as well as help prevent damage to your joints from osteoarthritis.19 With inactivity and muscle loss, there is greater potential for damage to your large joints, leading to arthritic changes and pain. Resistance training may also improve your cardiovascular health, reduce your blood pressure and help prevent and manage Type 2 diabetes.20

Resistance training may also reduce shrinkage of white brain matter and beneficially impact your cognitive function.21 Research evaluating a 12-week resistance exercise program in elderly, sedentary women demonstrated participants experienced an average increase of 58 percent of upper body strength, 68 percent lower body strength and 19 percent improvement in cognitive functioning.22

The researchers concluded that regular strength training may provide significant gains in upper and lower body strength as well as cognitive capacity. In one survey, researchers found the elderly were more afraid of losing their independence and moving into a nursing home than they were of dying.23 Each of these benefits of resistance training effectively reduces signs of aging and increases the potential you’ll remain independent as you age.

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