Yay , it’s a new year! But… ugh. If you’re like me, maybe you're a bit more subdued in your “yay it’s a New Year,” proclamations this time. Remember how 2021 started and we were so hopeful and then lots of stuff happened and it was pretty hard to keep feeling quite as hopeful? Fool me once…
Way back in April of 2020 (seems like a lifetime ago), I wrote a newsletter about the benefits of exercise to help us stay strong in the face of the pandemic crisis. Some of those benefits included the positive effects on mental health that training produces, improving mood, memory and problem solving functions. I’m not sure what would have happened if the me of today somehow had conveyed a message to the me of then that almost 2 years later we would still be very much challenged by the effects of the same virus, but I’m certain it would have made me appreciate those anxiety reducing effects of exercise even more, to say the least!
Researchers studying anxiety and depression over the past few years have noted that reported levels have fluctuated right along with the pandemic and can be seen eerily reflected right along with the ups and downs in COVID-19 cases. Simply stated, the higher the average COVID-19 case count, the greater the number of us experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms. So it’s safe to say that this latest huge surge in cases has us starting 2022 feeling even more anxious. In my years as a fitness professional, I’ve definitely discovered that some training prescriptions work better than others when it comes to the mental and emotional effects of exercise, not just the physical ones. As such, I wanted to dive deeper and give a bit more detail on the anxiolytic benefits associated with a regular training regimen, and highlight how we can use specific types of training to have more positive effects on our mental health.
Of course most of us already know the well documented physical performance benefits of resistance exercise (strength training); increases in muscle mass, bone density and endurance. Although a number of studies have shown us that aerobic exercise can produce mental health benefits; improved cognition and mood, it’s only more recently that researchers have specifically examined the effects of resistance training on mental health. Several recent studies have revealed the anxiolytic effects that even just a single session of strength training can produce. As such, we can begin to understand that resistance exercise goes well beyond helping us build muscle and strengthen tissue but also drives changes to our neurobiological systems related to mental health and anxiety-related outcomes. More research is needed, but it is hypothesized that the cortisol modulating effects of resistance training could have an effect on the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. Anxiety is often observed when there is a prolonged activation of the stress response along the HPA axis, so the hormonal effects associated with strength training might actually be helping us regulate this stress response!
All this is quite fascinating, but beyond recognizing that strength training is good for your brain as well as your body (something we were already pretty sure of), what actionable data comes from this research? Well, I’m so glad you asked! As a coach and program designer, the most interesting results of this research for me are related to training intensity and frequency.
First let’s address the frequency component. If there are anxiety-reducing benefits associated with a single bout of resistance exercise, can this effect be sustained over longer term exposure to the stimuli? In other words, do we become more used to the effects of training and therefore derive less of a benefit from repeated exposure? Fortunately the answer is “No,” there doesn’t seem to be a drop in effectiveness just because we keep doing it. We can continue to reap the hormonal benefits triggered by strength training without a reduction associated with repeated exposure to the same incentive.
You’ve often heard me harp on about the importance of recovery though, so keep in mind that you can only improve from what you can recover from. In a separate study specific to cortisol levels, a 48 hour recovery between bouts of resistance exercise proved optimal to ensure proper cortisol modulation. Yes, we sometimes have to train on consecutive days, but that’s where waviness of intensity and specialized variety come in. Our strength programming usually follows an A / B format, and by incorporating Endurance and Yoga classes, our members often achieve an A / B / C / D training schedule. This serves to help reduce the risks of over doing it if we have to train on consecutive days, and minimally interfere with the hormonal aspects of recovery.
So the studies have revealed that resistance training can reduce anxiety levels, but how important is the intensity at which we work? As it turns out, when it comes to provoking anxiolytic effects, intensity plays a critical role just as it does in our work to increase strength. Surprisingly, the positive benefits can be obtained from diverse intensity levels reinforcing the importance of careful periodization. For example, lifting sessions focused on 45% of the trainee’s single rep max (a perceptibly ultra light session indeed!) produced palpable decreases in anxiety that lasted up to 120 minutes after the session was over, but those beneficial effects were absent after sessions focused on 30% (even lighter) and also 60% (heavier) levels of intensity. In another study, training performed at the 50% of the single rep max intensity level was shown to produce decreases in anxiety but this did not occur at the 80% intensity level. If we’re spotting a trend here, it’s that strength work that includes intensities above 70% of the trainee’s one rep max is less likely to drive a decrease in anxiety when compared to lifting at moderate or lower intensities (50–70% 1RM).
Training at lower intensities can be such a hard sell with athletes, but low to moderate intensity sessions form the backbone of many of our most successful programs. If given the choice, some trainees would eschew low intensity sessions entirely, thinking that they are of little overall benefit. Good coaches have learned, however, that tactical planning to achieve an average intensity level that is neither too low or too high (usually between 70-80%) is a must to reach new levels of strength. Now we also know that the mental and emotional boost achieved from those sessions under 70% is a huge part of what sets us up for success in the higher intensity ones!
As 2022 gets going and we’re working through yet another period of heightened pandemic stress (thank you Omicron), we can at least be confident that a consistent training regimen including frequent low to moderate intensity levels is proven to help reduce our anxiety levels, in addition to build strength, fitness and improve the overall quality of life. I’ve always been a fan of strength training, but researchers believe that we now have enough data to even begin making clinical recommendations for the design and implementation of resistance exercise-based treatments for anxiety disorders. If we have to start the year a bit stressed, let’s fight back by lifting some weights, reducing that stress with every training session and getting even a little bit tougher every week for the year to ahead.