The Morning Call (Sunday)

Weight Training for Relaxation?

A study suggests that squats and crunches can help calm jangly nerves.

- By Gretchen Reynolds

report, and all decisions would follow from there. She’s taking the same approach during the pandemic in her home on the South Coast of England, replacing weather forecasts with outdoor activities.

“In your day you need structure,” she said. “You need to get up in the morning knowing you’re going to make something happen.”

FOCUS ON SOMETHING NEW

When all else fails, look to something new: a new hobby, a new goal, a new experience. During a particular­ly hard patch of a competitio­n, some athletes say they focus on a different sense. A runner may note the smells around her; a climber may focus on the way his hair is blowing in the wind.

When athletes are injured, sports psychologi­sts and coaches frequently encourage them to find a new activity to engage mind and body. The key is to adapt, adapt and then adapt again.

“We all want mental toughness; it’s an important part of dealing with difficult things,” said Michael Gervais, a psychologi­st and the host of the “Finding Mastery” podcast. “The current definition of mental toughness is the ability to pivot and to be nimble and flexible.”

During the pandemic, Ms. Caffari has shifted to spending time in her garden, something she did not have as much time for when she was traveling.

Mr. Anker has taken up calligraph­y. “Yesterday I transcribe­d quotes from John Lewis and I find that satisfying,” he said.

When his favorite trails were closed because of lockdowns, Mr. Woltering decided to run every street of his hometown, Ottawa, Ill.

It was some 200 miles.

“The next moment is always completely uncertain, and it’s always been that way,” Dr. Gervais said. But adapting, adjusting expectatio­ns and discoverin­g new goals can allow you to continue to build the muscle that is mental toughness.

Bottom line? “Optimism is an antidote to anxiety,” Dr. Gervais said.

ROILED BY CONCERNS about the pandemic and politics? Lifting weights might help, according to a study of anxiety and resistance training. The study, which involved healthy young adults, barbells and lunges, indicates that regular weight training substantia­lly reduces anxiety.

We already have plenty of evidence that exercise helps stave off depression and other mental ills, and that exercise can elevate feelings of happiness and contentmen­t. But most past studies have looked at the effects of aerobic exercise, like running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.

Scientists only recently have begun to investigat­e whether and how weight training might also affect mental health. A 2018 review of studies concluded that adults who lift weights are less likely to develop depression than those who never lift. In another study, women with clinical anxiety disorders reported fewer symptoms after taking up either aerobic or weight training.

But many of these studies involved frequent and complicate­d sessions of resistance exercise performed under the eyes of researcher­s, which is not how most of us are likely to work out. They also often focused on somewhat narrow groups, such as men or women with a diagnosed mental health condition, limiting their applicabil­ity.

So for the new study, which was published in October in Scientific Reports, researcher­s at the University of Limerick in Ireland and other institutio­ns decided to see if a simple version of weight training could have benefits for mood in people who already were in generally good mental health.

To find out, they recruited 28 physically healthy young men and women and tested their current moods, with a particular emphasis on whether the volunteers felt anxious. All the participan­ts scored in a healthy range on detailed anxiety questionna­ires.

The scientists then divided the volunteers into two groups. Half were asked to continue with their normal lives as a control group. The others began to weight train, a practice with which few were familiar.

The scientists had devised a simple resistance training routine for them, based around health guidelines from the World Health Organizati­on and the American College of Sports Medicine. Both those organizati­ons recommend muscle strengthen­ing at least twice a week, and that’s what the volunteers began doing. After initial instructio­n, they took up a program of lunges, lifts, squats and crunches, sometimes using dumbbells and other equipment.

Their training continued for eight weeks. Throughout, both groups periodical­ly repeated the tests of their anxiety levels, including at the end of the full program.

As expected, the control group, for the most part, retained their original low levels of anxiety. They still felt about as tranquil as eight weeks before.

But the weight trainers scored about 20 percent better on the tests of anxiety. They had started with low levels of anxiety to begin with, but felt even less anxious now.

This effect was “larger than anticipate­d,” says Brett Gordon, a postdoctor­al scholar at the Penn State Cancer Institute at Penn State College of Medicine, who was a co-author of the study with Matthew Herring, Cillian McDowell and Mark Lyons. The benefits for mental health were greater than those often seen in studies of aerobic exercise and anxiety. But Dr. Gordon cautions that such comparison­s are limited, since the various experiment­s use different amounts of exercise and measures of moods.

Of course, this experiment featured only healthy young people performing one version of training, so the findings cannot tell us if lifting likewise eases anxiety in older people. Nor can it tell us which regimen might be enough, too much or just the right amount to bolster mental health.

Finally, the study also does not prove that heading to the gym today can acutely soothe any mental turmoil we may be feeling, since the improvemen­ts in the study showed up after weeks of training.

But if you are feeling tense, becoming stronger is probably a worthwhile goal and need not be intimidati­ng, Dr. Gordon says.

“There are numerous ways to strength train with little to no equipment,” he says. “Try common body weight exercises, such as push-ups, situps or squats, or use household items as weights.”

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VINCENT TULLO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

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