Resistance Exercise and Anxiety: Can lifting weights help reduce anxiety?


Blitz Conditioning Resistance Exercise

Strapping a pair of runners on and going out for a jog might not be the only way of reducing anxiety.  There is a growing amount of research looking at the use of resistance based exercises and anxiety.  One of the greatest barriers in the progression of this study has been the consistency in workout types and styles. Performing aerobic exercise to reduce anxiety levels has been whittled down to a pretty simple set of instructions:

  • Perform the type of aerobic exercise that you enjoy.
  • Get the heart rate between %60-90 of the your heart rate max.
  • Perform for 20 – 40 minutes.
  • Do it 2 – 3 times a week minimum.
  • Increase frequency if the bouts of anxiety increase or are more severe.

But with weight based workouts we ask questions like:

  • Are workouts one hits all the body parts more effective than just isolating one body part?
  • How hard to push? %10, 20…90 of my one rep max?
  • Frequency of workout?
  • What type of equipment is necessary? Bands, weights, or machines?
  • What is the amount of time that is required per workout?
  • What is the amount of time required to see a physiological reduction in anxiety?
  • Is circuit training (linking exercises together) more effective than isolation?

The list of factors is both a blessing and a curse. When we look at each exercise form as part of a treatment system the options to create an exercise prescription plan unique to the individual is available. The curse is more of a time and funding factor: it takes time to tease out each of these workout methodologies and it takes money. The broader vision in research is to understand what exercise enthusiasts already know: as long as we move we feel better; no matter the style of workout. Fitness is not an end point, it’s a tool.  Now a days we liken fitness to a 10,000 piece tool set. We will probably use 10 of those tools regularly but we try and buy the whole set because we are sold into the idea that they’re all necessary. What science is doing right now is creating more generalized theories on resistance-based exercise. It is getting rid of 9,990 tools and just focusing on the 10 most frequently used.  Literature reviews of resistance based like that of Justin Strickland and Mark Smith have shown that resistance based exercise is useful in reducing both state and trait anxiety levels.

Single bouts of weights or machine based workouts between %70-50 of a person’s one rep max with plenty of rest between sets has been proven to help reduce anxiety levels. Effects in reduction of situational anxiety have been shown in intensities as low as %45 a person’s one repetition max for upwards of two hours after the workout was performed.  Similar results are seen with long-term exercise regimens; the lower intensity workouts tend to be more effective than those above %70.  The biggest issue in strength-based research is that people traditionally lift about %70-85, or 8 to 12 reps, of their one rep max in order to become stronger; this principle led to no significant reduction in anxiety levels. The traditional strengthening principles of 8 – 12 reps pale in comparison to the gold standard of aerobic exercise and that was why we disregarded weights in anxiety research.

Research is also showing that resistance exercise may have a different way of physiologically affecting anxiety in comparison to aerobic exercise. Both forms of exercise work to rewire the brain affecting the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis function. The HPA axis are coded neural responses to stimuli; our brains create nearly automated responses to things that we are exposed to on a regular basis. For instance, learning how to accurately throw a ball is tough initially because of all of the thought processes required but it becomes easier after when our neurons map out how to perform the action. The HPA axis is partly responsible for wiring the brain to respond to the action without thinking about it. In the case of anxiety the wiring of the brain defaults to an over-drive state and that’s why panic symptoms erupt in situations where it is unnecessary. In aerobic exercise rewiring the HPA axis is performed by a neural growth factor called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) but this isn’t the case in resistance training. The factors affecting the HPA axis in resistance training has actually yet to be discovered so we live in exciting times!  We also know that the combination of aerobic and resistance training may lend to be far more effective than their individual use.

There is still a lot to be discovered with respect to resistance training and mental health but ultimately this gives more light to one inference:

We were meant to move. The highest order of living is the ability to have the mind, the body, and the spirit interact while experiencing life.  This is the true definition of a healthy lifestyle.


About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

Share your thoughts