There is a wealth of research affirming exercise as a mood-boosting activity, and aerobic exercise typically gets all the credit. Not anymore! A new study looked at weight training as a method to reduce anxiety, and the results were significant. (Possibly even more significant than aerobic activity.)

The first noteworthy thing about this new study, published in October, is that researchers specifically sought out people who already had pretty good mental health. All participants filled out a detailed mood questionnaire at the onset to determine their current anxiety levels. Each of the 28 young men and women selected for the study scored within a healthy range.

While all of the participants were physically and mentally healthy, few of them were familiar with weight training. Researchers divided them into two groups. The first group was told to continue their lives as usual, while the second group began to weight train.

Participants in the experimental group started a simple strength training routine. They were instructed to train at least twice a week, based on recommendations from the World Health Organization and the American College of Sports Medicine. Their workouts included squats, crunches, lunges, lifts, and occasionally dumbbells or other equipment.

The study lasted eight weeks, and participants repeated the mood questionnaire throughout, enabling researchers to mark changes in anxiety levels over time. The group that continued their lives as usual (no weight training) did not report any significant changes in anxiety. This was not a surprise. They were pretty chill at the start, and they remained pretty chill in the end.

Conversely, the group that weight trained reduced their anxiety by roughly 20 percent. Let’s not forget that these were generally happy people to begin with. This positive change was much more significant than researchers anticipated. The improvements in anxiety levels were even greater than many of the reports from studies of aerobic exercise. Nobody saw that coming.  

This study indicates an important relationship between weight training and mental health, but there’s still more to learn, including why there was such a profound effect. Dr. Brett Gordon, one of the co-authors, speculates that “feelings of mastery may have occurred,” which reduced. overall anxiety. Perhaps when you feel strong, you simply feel more ready to take on the world.

Whatever the reason, this study suggests that strength training can improve mental health in as little as eight weeks. Whether you’re feeling anxious or not, it might be worth incorporating resistance training into your exercise routine. Even if you’re feeling generally happy and healthy like the participants in this study (an impressive feat in 2020), there is always room for improvement. The benefits of weight training on the mind should not be underestimated.