Boost your mood and reduce anxiety symptoms by up to 20% with 8 weeks of resistance training: findings from a new study

exercise Nov 05, 2020

The association between exercise and better health and longevity has long been reported. However, a new study, reporting findings from a randomised controlled trial, highlights the dose and duration required to see clinically important reductions in anxiety symptoms in young individuals.

The study, conducted by researchers from University of Limerick, Ireland and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Scientific Reports, recruited volunteer participants aged between 18–40 years who did not have any ongoing generalised anxiety medical disorders to participate in an 8-week resistance exercise training (RET). Initially, participants completed a 3-week twice-weekly RET program in which resistance increased progressively, such that the participant could complete two sets of between 8 and 12 repetitions of eight exercises before experiencing either fatigue, a deterioration in lifting form noted by the investigator, or failure to complete a repetition. The first 3 weeks’ sessions were fully supervised, conducted privately on a one-to-one basis in a RET facility, with no other people in the facility besides the investigator and participant. Following these 3 one-on-one sessions, participants were instructed to continue with the RET twice weekly for 8 weeks. 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, and abdominal crunches.

The average attendance to the RET intervention was 85% (13 out of 16 sessions). The average compliance with RET was 83% (212 out of 256 repetitions). The average rate of perceived exertion was 14 ± 1 (in between somewhat hard and hard), and average muscle soreness was 4 ± 2 out of 10. As anticipated, participants in the RET intervention significantly increased their strength by on average 23.4% (± 14.7).

Using a validated anxiety measurement instrument, levels reduced from baseline score 39.9 (± 7.9) to 31.8 (±8.0) from week 1 to week 8 (average 20% reduction). Interestingly, the greater magnitude of reductions in anxiety symptoms occurred following initial familiarization sessions and subsequently from week four to week 8. Due to the progressive increase in weight of the RET protocol, participants engaged in the largest dose of RET at the end of the intervention, when their improvements in strengths allowed them to engage in more intense RET. 

Our take at StriveStronger

This study adds to an evolving body of evidence demonstrating health benefits to regular physical activity, especially on mental health and wellbeing. Importantly, the effects reported in this study were observed in a young healthy sample without diagnosed anxiety disorders, highlighting that we can all reap these potential benefits, especially during naturally occurring anxiety periods in our lives. Interestingly the magnitude of anxiety reductions is larger than the effects previously reported with aerobic-based physical activity suggesting that regular resistance training should feature in our weekly exercise regimes, something that is also recommended in most national exercise guidelines.

In this study, subjects participated in one on one guided sessions for the first 3 weeks, which may have been an important factor in the outcomes seen. At StriveStronger we believe in ensuring you have the right skills and technique to conduct resistance training safely and to ensure you are maximising potential benefits form your time and efforts, especially when you commence training and are not experienced. Additionally, such personal coaching, either professionally or with a friend can become an important motivator to help you get started, especially after the first week when it can be easy to drop off with muscle soreness or dipping motivation.

In this study, subjects followed a progressive resistance program, a known strategy for increasing strength as demonstrated by the increases seen at 8 weeks, a time when muscle strength had increased significantly. Interestingly, the reductions in anxiety of 20% almost mirror the increase seen in muscle strength (23%) so chasing muscle strength is in effect chasing lower anxiety symptom experiences too.

Notably, researchers report adherence to twice-weekly sessions of 85% and compliance to completing RET repetitions of just over 80%, yet participants still increased muscle strength and had reduced anxiety symptoms suggest that it is Ok to miss an odd session or parts of individual sessions, yet still reap the potential physical and mental wellbeing benefits. 

Finally, our last take from this study is that if you are keen to attain similar benefits from resistance training as seen in this study, the rate of perceived exertion should be between somewhat hard and hard (level 14 on a scale between 1-20), although muscle soreness does not need to be excessive (was 4 ± 2 out of 10 in this study). However, make sure you are of good enough physical health to undertake such training and seek expert help at the start to ensure your best intentions do not do yourself harm in the process.

(Please note: if you are suffering from any medical conditions, please consult your usual healthcare practitioner before commencing any new physical activity regime).

Reference: Gordon, B.R., McDowell, C.P., Lyons, M. et al. Resistance exercise training for anxiety and worry symptoms among young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Sci Rep 10, 17548 (2020).

Study available at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-74608-6

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