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Lifting the weight of anxiety

Aerobic exercise has been shown to be moderately effective for reducing anxiety. Does resistance training have similar benefits?

Study under review: The Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Anxiety: A MetaAnalysis and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials

Introduction

Picture this: You’re at a large conference with several people who work in the same field as you. Suddenly, you’re asked by your boss to give a talk on a subject you know nothing about. That thought alone can cause some people anxiety.

The feeling is a double-edged sword. Small amounts of anxiety are beneficial, keeping you on your toes in situations where things can go wrong[1]. You want to be a bit anxious, not bored, if you’re in the presence of a man-eating animal, for example. But too much of the feeling in the wrong context can be problematic, and have a negative effect on your life.

Anxiety disorders, which describe severe and chronic anxiety, are, as a group, one of the leading causes[2] of disability worldwide. The worldwide prevalence of different anxiety disorders is shown in Figure 1. In the U.S., nearly 15%[3] of people report frequent symptoms of anxiety. These disorders are often associated[4] with other mental disorders, such as depression, and are often linked to poor health outcomes and risky behavior.

First-line treatments for anxiety disorders include the use of antidepressant drugs[5] and[6]/or[7] cognitive behavioral therapy[8]. Unfortunately, both of these treatments have poor adherence rates[9][10], and antidepressant drugs can often cause adverse events[11]. Furthermore, not everyone[12] can easily access these kinds of treatments.

Exercise, an activity accessible to most people, has been investigated as an alternative treatment for lowering anxiety. So far, a large body of evidence[13] seems to support the anti-anxiety effects of aerobic exercise in mostly healthy people[14] and in people with anxiety disorders[15]. However, there haven’t been large reviews of the effects of resistance exercise training (RET) on symptoms of anxiety until now. The study under review sought to examine whether RET is an effective intervention for lowering symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety is an adaptive response that can be useful in the right amounts, but disabling when it is too high in the wrong context. First-line treatments for excessive anxiety are hampered by accessibility, adherence, and adverse events. Alternative treatments like aerobic exercise training (AET) have been established as moderately effective interventions for lowering symptoms of anxiety, but resistance exercise training (RET) hasn’t been as thoroughly investigated for its effects until recently.

Who and what was studied?

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The big picture

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Other Articles in Issue #36 (October 2017)