As expected, the control group, for the most part, retained their original low levels of anxiety. They still felt as peaceful as eight weeks ago.
But the weight trainers scored about 20 percent better on anxiety tests. They started out with low anxiety at first, but felt even less anxious now.
This effect was “larger than expected,” says Brett Gordon, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Penn State Cancer Institute at Penn State College of Medicine, who co-authored the study with Matthew Herring, Cillian McDowell and Mark Lyons. The mental health benefits were actually greater than those often seen in studies of aerobic exercise and anxiety. But Dr. Gordon cautions that such comparisons are limited, as the various experiments use different amounts of exercise and mood measures.
The new study also didn’t examine how weight training can affect anxiety. But Dr Gordon and his colleagues suspect an increase in physical and psychological power. Weightlifters have grown stronger over time and able to lift heavier weights. “Feelings of mastery may have arisen,” he says, leaving people generally feeling more able to cope. Molecular changes in weightlifters’ muscles and brains likely also occurred and contributed to improvements in their mood, he says, noting that future studies may help detail some of these changes.
Of course, this experiment only involved healthy young people doing some version of training, so the results cannot tell us if lifting also alleviates anxiety in older people. It also can’t tell us which diet might be enough, too much, or just the right amount to boost mental health. Lastly, it also doesn’t prove that hitting the gym today can acutely soothe any mental disturbances we might be feeling, since the improvements in the study came after weeks of training.
But if you’re feeling tense and tense, as many of us are these days, getting stronger is probably a worthy goal and doesn’t have to be intimidating, says Dr. Gordon. “There are a lot of ways to train with little or no equipment,” he says. “Try common bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups, sit-ups, or squats, or use household items as weights.”
You can find more information on DIY bodybuilding in our Well guides: “How to get strong” and “How to build muscle in 9 minutes”.