Don't Skimp on Strength Training

strength training benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • The number of people diagnosed with anxiety has now outpaced those diagnosed with depression in the U.S.
  • Past research demonstrates aerobic exercise may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression; recent research now demonstrates high-intensity strength training may have the same positive effect on your emotional health
  • Strength training has additional benefits that include improvements in cardiovascular health, increased muscle tone, improved balance, reduced potential for osteoarthritis and osteoporosis and revived metabolism
  • Using the Nitric Oxide Dump, you may experience a reduction in your level of anxiety, benefits normally experienced with strength training and the addition of increased release of nitric oxide that reduces blood pressure and your potential for abnormal clot formation

By Dr. Mercola

Anxiety and depression are two mental health issues that are often associated. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, but it becomes unhealthy when as it appears to take on a life of its own and generalizes to your body and mind.1 Symptoms may include rapid heart rate, muscle aches and pains, chronic headaches and muscle tension.

In the past, the number of people suffering from depression outranked other mental health issues. In 2012, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated 5 percent of the world and U.S. populations suffered from depression.2 However, the number of people struggling with anxiety now outpaces those suffering from depression. More than half of American college students3 now report experiencing anxiety, and anxiety has become 800 percent more prevalent than cancer.4

Research5 and clinical practitioners6 have found exercise and physical activity are associated with improved physical and mental health, cognitive function and life satisfaction.7 Recent research8 now links strength training to some of the same improvements in health, with the added benefits associated with strength training, including firm muscle tone, improved balance and antiaging effects.

Resistance Training May Reduce Your Anxiety

A meta-analysis of 16 previously published studies evaluated the effect of strength training, or resistance exercises,9 on anxiety. Conclusions were drawn from results using 922 participants assigned to engage in resistance training or to be inactive during the study period. Results from the analysis demonstrated that resistance training was associated with a reduction in symptoms of anxiety, whether or not the participant had a diagnosed mental health disorder.

The greatest reduction in anxiety symptoms occurred in individuals who did not report physical or psychological symptoms associated with their anxiety. Past research that demonstrated a positive impact on mental health symptoms from exercise was based on cardiovascular exercise. The lead study author, Brett Gordon, physical education and sports researcher from Limerick University in Ireland, commented on the results of the study, saying:

"RET (resistance exercise training) significantly reduced anxiety in both healthy participants and those with a physical or mental illness, and the effect size of these reductions is comparable to that of frontline treatments such as medication and psychotherapy. RET is a low-cost behavior with minimal risk, and can be an effective tool to reduce anxiety for healthy and ill alike."

The study focused only on resistance training. Thus, the researchers were unable to make a comparison between results from aerobic training and resistance training, or determine if a combination offered even greater results. In the current meta-analysis, the participants did strength training two to five days each week for an average of 11 weeks.

There Is Not Just One Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is important as it signals danger, increases your level of alertness and clears your mind to prepare for action. Everyone experiences anxiety and nervousness that is situation-based. In other words, your anxiety is centered around a present event or situation.

Research demonstrates the positive effect exercise and strength training has on normal levels of anxiety. However, psychologists also incorporate exercise in the treatment of individuals suffering from anxiety disorders. In fact, regular exercise may work as well, or better than, medication to reduce symptoms.10

Anxiety disorders are different from regular situation-based anxiety as they involve far greater than normal levels of nervousness and excessive fear or anxiety.11 Studies show those who exercise regularly are 25 percent less likely to experience anxiety, and exercise may quickly elevate a depressed mood.12 The following three types of anxiety disorders13 may respond well to consistent exercise.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. This condition is diagnosed after displaying excessive anxiety for several months and you have physical symptoms that may include muscle tension, easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability and difficulty sleeping.
  • Panic disorder. Individuals suffer unexpected and recurrent panic attacks that may include physical symptoms of a rapid heart rate, intense fear, being out of control, shaking and shortness of breath.
  • Social anxiety disorder. This is also called social phobia and is marked by a fear of performance in which they feel they may be judged, rejected or may offend others.

Strength Training May Turn Back the Clock

The benefits of strength training go well beyond toning muscles and helping reduce any anxiety you may be feeling. As you age, you'll experience a natural loss of skeletal muscles, called sarcopenia.14 This is one of the more important factors in the loss of independence in older adults and functional decline. Sarcopenia is usually defined by losses of muscle strength and muscle mass. Contributing factors to this loss are hormonal changes, neurological decline, poor nutrition and declining activity.

Although pharmaceutical companies race to develop a "fountain of youth" pill that may slow your muscle loss and improve your health, the gold standard and safest way to stave off age-related decline will always be exercise and good nutrition. You have the power to turn back the clock and prevent muscle atrophy without ever leaving your home. In one study,15 led by Irina Conboy, Ph.D., researchers were able to demonstrate reversal of muscle atrophy in 70-year-old participants. She commented:16

"Our study shows that the ability of old human muscle to be maintained and repaired by muscle stem cells can be restored to youthful vigor given the right mix of biochemical signals. This provides promising new targets for forestalling the debilitating muscle atrophy that accompanies aging, and perhaps other tissue degenerative disorders as well."

Strength training is a weight-bearing exercise and thus also reduces your risk of osteoporotic changes to your bone. This may help prevent a broken hip, wrist or vertebrae from calcium loss and bone thinning as you age. While recovery from a hip fracture may be arduous, the risk of death in the year following the break may be as high as 58 percent.17 Medical expenses of osteoporosis and subsequent broken bones incur a large financial burden, costing nearly $16 billion using 2002 population samples.18

As resistance training boosts your muscle mass and strength, it also helps boost your metabolism and maintain weight loss, as well as help prevent damage to your joints from osteoarthritis.19 With inactivity and muscle loss, there is greater potential for damage to your large joints, leading to arthritic changes and pain. Resistance training may also improve your cardiovascular health, reduce your blood pressure and help prevent and manage Type 2 diabetes.20

Resistance training may also reduce shrinkage of white brain matter and beneficially impact your cognitive function.21 Research evaluating a 12-week resistance exercise program in elderly, sedentary women demonstrated participants experienced an average increase of 58 percent of upper body strength, 68 percent lower body strength and 19 percent improvement in cognitive functioning.22

The researchers concluded that regular strength training may provide significant gains in upper and lower body strength as well as cognitive capacity. In one survey, researchers found the elderly were more afraid of losing their independence and moving into a nursing home than they were of dying.23 Each of these benefits of resistance training effectively reduces signs of aging and increases the potential you'll remain independent as you age.

Boost Strength Training Benefits Using High-Intensity Training

In this short video, I'll share just some of the important health benefits you'll experience when you incorporate strength training into your weekly routine. Remember, resistance training requires at least a 48-hour window between workouts to allow your muscles to repair the expected minor muscle tears and build stronger muscles. While you may not feel a difference in your strength training if you don't wait, you will not gain as much muscle and will experience burn out more quickly.

High-intensity strength training differs from regular resistance training as it is a method of generating strength and metabolic improvement and not simply a way of lifting weight by any means to increase strength. This style of exercise increases your effort, rapidly fatigues your muscles and triggers desirable changes such as increased fat burning.24

During high-intensity resistance training you perform a series slowly, for either a set number of reps or a set number of minutes without rest between movements. Your heart rate remains elevated, and your muscles have little time for recovery. Unfortunately, the benefits of high-intensity training are not enjoyed by nearly 90 percent of people who exercise.

Dr. Doug McGuff, an expert in high-intensity strength training, explains that one of those benefits is the release of myokines, which are in the class of cytokines.25 While cytokines are released from fat tissue and promote an inflammatory process, myokines have anti-inflammatory properties that also increase your sensitivity to insulin and the ability of your muscles to utilize glucose. By liberating and burning fat cells, they also help reduce cytokines that may be released.

Interestingly, McGuff has found that high-intensity resistance training gives you the same benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) using cardiovascular exercises, plus the added benefits of using weight to improve muscle development and strength. The benefits of HIIT include burning calories and fat in a shorter amount of time, boosting metabolism, challenging physical activity that benefits your heart muscle and an effective use of energy with continued calorie burn after you've completed the activity.26

In addition, high-intensity strength training induces deep muscle fatigue that triggers the creation of more muscle and the metabolic components needed to support it, including myokines. These myokines have a positive effect on reducing inflammation and preventing chronic diseases. According to McGuff, ramping up the intensity of muscle work over a short period and increasing muscle fatigue increases the benefit you get from working out.27

Shorten Your Workouts and Enjoy More Benefits

Another benefit to using a high-intensity strength workout is the change that occurs in your mitochondria. These little powerhouses produce your body weight in ATP (the energy format used by your cells) every day and are responsible for programming cell death.

Conventional recommendations are to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Unfortunately, many are concerned with a lack of time and may end up skipping exercise altogether. The good news is, scientists have demonstrated you are able to make great health and fitness improvements in just minutes each week.

In one study,28 researchers found three minutes of intense exercise per week was as effective as 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, improving insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular fitness and mitochondrial content. High-intensity type training also increases the creation of mitochondria29 that reverses age-associated decline in mitochondrial mass, and ultimately a reduction in function.

The key to unlocking these benefits using HIIT is to work at your highest intensity for 30 seconds and repeat four to six times with 90-second active rest in between spurts. The actual amount of time you're working is two to three minutes. Do this workout twice a week, and you'll experience the benefits of 150 minutes each week in just six minutes. You likely can find six minutes in one week to improve your health and lengthen your life.

Participating in high-intensity training may also improve your VO2 max, or the measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your muscles can use. The higher your VO2 max, the greater your endurance. You may engage in a three-minute modified strength and cardiovascular exercise, two to three times a day and enjoy many of the same benefits. This routine may be done anywhere, without equipment and in your everyday clothes. It is named the Nitric Oxide Dump by the man who developed it, Dr. Zach Bush.

Watch the video below to learn this technique. These simple exercises increase your heart rate and likely produce the same anxiety reduction of other high-intensity strategies, while also increasing the amount of nitric oxide produced by your muscles. This gentler strategy improves cardiovascular fitness, mitochondrial function, blood pressure reduction and reduces the "stickiness" of platelets that will reduce your potential for abnormal clot production.30

Other Natural Options That May Reduce Your Anxiety

There are other natural options you may choose to use with high-intensity resistance training. These strategies work well together with exercise to reduce your anxiety and nervousness and improve your overall health.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) works by correcting bioelectrical short-circuiting that may exhibit as anxiety. Without any side effects, you easily may reprogram your circuitry, whether you believe the strategy works or not. The process is a form of acupressure based on the same energy meridians followed by traditional acupuncturists for more than 5,000 years.

You may learn to use the techniques at home and may easily use it at home or in public. The technique specifically used for anxiety is demonstrated in my previous article, "EFT Is an Effective Tool for Anxiety."

Aromatherapy. The use of essential oil for inhalation, massage or consumption supports your physical and emotional health using bioactive compounds from flowers and plants in concentrated forms. Research has demonstrated the use of orange or lavender may help reduce anxiety,31 improve mood32 and help you achieve a calm demeanor.33

Mindfulness. Anxiety therapist John Moore, Ph.D., reports there are 10 different behaviors or thoughts you may unintentionally have that make your anxiety worse.34 These may include magical thinking, fishing for reassurances or relying on medication.

You'll find a full list and explanation of each in my previous article, "Don't Ignore These 10 Things if You Struggle with Anxiety." By being mindful of your actions and thoughts, you may reduce these behaviors and thoughts and potentially safely impact your level of anxiety.

Rechannel your emotions. Regarding physical changes in your body, excitement and anxiety aren't very different. When you are anxious, consider trying to rechannel your negative emotions into something more positive by speaking aloud, and saying, "I'm excited!" A series of experiments found those who tried to calm themselves down performed worse than those who reappraised their anxious energy as more positive excitement.

Cognitive behavioral therapy. The goal of this therapy is to reclaim your reaction to your feelings and the stimuli from your environment. This type of therapy deals only with your present situation and problems without delving into past hurt or pain. Therapy sessions usually last 30 to 60 minutes, training you to identify problematic situations or conditions in your life, help you become aware of your thoughts, identify what is negative or inaccurate and reshape that thinking.

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