Weight training shown to reduce anxiety in randomized controlled trial of young adults

Research on anxiety and depression tends to center around individuals with clinical-level symptoms. This is understandable, as there is arguably greater urgency to find workable solutions for these populations. However, otherwise mentally healthy individuals also experience anxiety from time to time or may struggle with persistent levels of subclinical, mild anxiety.

Furthermore, subclinical levels, by definition, always precede clinical levels. Keeping these down in the general population is another way of ensuring individuals stay healthy. This was the reasoning behind an article published in Scientific Reports that explored the relationship between resistance training and subclinical anxiety symptoms among young adults.

While resistance training has been shown to improve anxiety symptoms in individuals with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, little research has examined this effect in healthy populations. Additionally, a majority of studies employ methodologies that limit their transferability to non-laboratory studies. The authors thus chose an “ecologically-valid” resistance training program, which could be performed just as well at home or at a gym as in a laboratory.

Each of the participants completed an array of online questionnaires, including the Psychiatric Diagnostic Screening Questionnaire-GAD (general anxiety disorder) and the 16-item Penn State Worry Questionnaire.

The results of the exercise intervention showed that anxiety symptoms, as measured before intervention, at week one, week four and after intervention, were significantly reduced. The greatest differences occurred between baseline and week one, and then from week four to post-intervention, with a plateau effect observed from weeks one to four. This is compared to the control group, where relatively little change in symptoms was observed.

Interestingly, while adherence was relatively high (85%), as was compliance (83%), individuals who completed the trial demonstrated, on average, greater worry and subclinical anxiety symptoms at the start than those who dropped out. Apparently, completion was at least in part contingent on the benefits experienced by individuals.

Additional research will be needed to understand exactly why and how resistance training improves symptoms of anxiety in healthy populations. The authors cite the social aspects of the intervention, expectancy of improved mental health, and feelings of mastery. This last one is particularly interesting, and the authors hypothesize that the continuous setting and achieving of goals by participants may have been a contributing factor.

The findings are particularly important for the target age-group of 18 to 40-years-old, which the authors selected based on the average age of onset for GAD, around 30 years. Reducing preclinical anxiety levels may indeed prevent them from developing into a clinical disorder—although more research will be needed to confirm this hypothesis.

The article, “Resistance exercise training for anxiety and worry symptoms among young adults: a randomized controlled trial,” was authored by Brett R. Gordon, Cillian P. McDowell, Mark Lyons and Matthew P. Herring.