As expected, the control group largely retained its originally low level of anxiety. They still felt as calm as they did eight weeks ago.
But the strength trainers did about 20 percent better on the anxiety tests. They had started out with little fear, but now felt even less fearful.
That effect was “bigger than expected,” says Brett Gordon, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State Cancer Institute at Penn State College of Medicine, who co-authored the study with Matthew Herring, Cillian McDowell, and Mark Lyons. Indeed, the mental health benefits were greater than those commonly seen in studies of aerobics and anxiety. Dr. Gordon cautions, however, that such comparisons are limited as the different experiments use different amounts of movement and mood measurements.
The new study also didn’t look at the effects of weight training on anxiety. Dr. Gordon and his colleagues suspect, however, an increased physical and psychological potency. The lifters got stronger over time and could lift heavier weights. “Feelings of mastery may have emerged,” he says, and people generally feel better able to deal with it. Molecular changes have also likely occurred in the lifters’ muscles and brains that have helped improve their mood. Future studies could help detail some of these changes.
In this experiment, of course, only healthy young people doing a version of the training were presented. So the results cannot tell us whether lifting also relieves anxiety in older people. Nor can it tell us which regimen might be enough, too much, or just the right amount, to boost mental health. After all, it also doesn’t prove that a visit to the gym today can acutely relieve the mental turmoil we may be feeling, as the improvements in the study showed after weeks of training.
But if you’re feeling tense and tense, as so many of us are these days, getting stronger is probably a worthwhile goal and doesn’t have to be intimidating, says Dr. Gordon. “There are many ways to train strength with little to no equipment,” he says. “Try common bodyweight exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, or squats, or use household items as weights.”
You can find more information on DIY strength training in our Well Guides: “How to get strong” and “How to build muscles in 9 minutes”.