No, this is not a Star Wars reference (if you know, you know), but a reference to the almost odd lack of attention that resistance exercise training has received, especially in the mental health literature. Now, before you might allow your mind to jump to mammoth folks throwing around shedloads of weight while consuming no less than the protein allocation of a professional eating team, we are talking about muscle strengthening exercises that can be completed with barbells and dumbbells, yes, but also with resistance bands, body weight, and even household goods. Regardless, the point is that the available research, much of which we have been fortunate to contribute to, supports that muscle strengthening exercises improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
For example, following up on two now highly cited quantitative synthesizes of resistance exercise for anxiety (see Gordon et al., 2017, Sports Medicine) and depressive (see Gordon et al., 2018, JAMA Psychiatry) symptoms, two of our recent publications provided the first rigorous evidence of the effects of resistance exercise training for anxiety among young adults with and without symptoms indicative of subclinical Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is unfortunately pretty common, characterized by excessive worry, and sadly poorly treated. However, along with some of our previous work, our recent studies suggested that, indeed, folks can lift that worry away (see what I did there?).
Specifically, in our 2021 article in Scientific Reports (see Gordon et al., 2021), we quantified the effects of ecologically-valid ACSM and WHO guidelines-based resistance exercise training (RET) on anxiety and worry symptoms among young adults. Young adults not meeting criteria for subclinical, or analogue Generalized Anxiety Disorder were randomized to an eight-week RET intervention, or eight-week wait-list. Twenty-eight participants (64% female) fully engaged in the trial. Compared to wait-list, RET significantly reduced anxiety symptoms from baseline to post-intervention. The magnitude of improvement was large and clinically meaningful (d = 0.85) – what this means is that this was a big improvement that merits consideration from the perspective of enhancing treatment. However, transparently, future trials should replicate and expand these findings to examine putative psychobiological mechanisms for the anxiolytic effects of RET.
In the second article, published recently in Journal of Affective Disorders, we quantified the effects of eight weeks of WHO and ACSM guidelines-based RET, compared to a wait-list control, among 44 young adults with subclinical, or analogue GAD AGAD. Participants significantly increased strength with no adverse events. RET improved GAD status, such that for every three young adults with AGAD who complete guidelines-based RET, we would anticipate one to no longer meet criteria for AGAD (and yes, that’s a pretty cool result). RET also resulted in large, clinically-meaningful improvements in worry (d=0.93) and anxiety (d=0.71) symptoms. Bottom line à our results support that ecologically-valid, guidelines based RET significantly improves symptom severity among young adults with AGAD.
There’s more good news to this story, but let’s leave it here for the moment – see you in the next episode.
Dr Matthew Herring is a Senior Lecturer in Exercise Psychology at the Department of Physical Education & Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Dr Herrings current research interests focus on the effects of exercise on mental health outcomes, particularly anxiety and depression, among otherwise healthy adults and chronically-ill patients. Contact Matthew via email at Matthew.Herring@ul.ie. Twitter: @mph8