There can’t be an adult alive who hasn’t felt stressed over the past year. While feeling stressed is totally normal, however, it’s important to get a handle on it before those feelings get on top of you. For some, a large glass of wine does the trick; for others, a yoga class or long run. But if you don’t enjoy running (and can’t have a drink), then you need an alternative.
A meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials (totalling 1,877 subjects) concluded that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults, while a review of seven studies found that moderate-intensity strength training leads to small but significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety.
According to a 2018 Mental Health Foundation report, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point that they felt unable to cope; that figure goes up to 81% for women. Allow stress to go untamed, and you run the risk of developing chronic anxiety.
“On the surface, stress and anxiety can appear to be quite similar,” explains Carleen Saffrey, chartered psychologist and clinical lead. “However, stress is usually caused by external factors in work, relationships and finances, to name just a few, with a variety of symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia and muscle tension.
“Experiencing stress is a normal part of life and we all respond to stress in different ways – anxiety is one of those ways. When we experience anxiety, it is a response to stress and an internal state where we can become preoccupied or excessively concerned by a perceived threat, uncertainties or something that has not happened.”
Why strength training is so good for stress
Strength training can be a brilliant activity to turn to when we’re stressed for a two reasons. The first is physical – it feels good to get stronger and we’re flooded with endorphins when we move. Strength training also allows us to get rid of nervous energy, which means that you’re less likely to feel frenetic afterwards. The second is mental.
BACP-accredited counsellor, Naomi Milton, says that “building muscle is about more than just the physical sensation. For women, it is an empowering experience to feel their strength grow. It can change the narrative around female weakness. You don’t need to ask a man to lift something if you are strong enough to do it yourself.”
She recommends “any kind of lift” if you want to quiet the mind. “It can be mindful as you have to master the technique, but really, it’s the feeling of strength in the body that can translate to the mind. I really think there is a huge power in going to the weights area of the gym and smashing out the perfect deadlift!”
Mind versus body
It’s all about focussing the mind on what is happening in the here and now. So often, stress and anxiety are about hypotheticals – future issues that bear little or no relation to the current moment. Weight training, the act of lifting your body or an external weight, requires absolute concentration to avoid injury.
“Weight training takes the mind into the present moment, while also exerting the body,” confirms Dr Rachel M Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist. Because you’re forced to concentrate on the present, you give yourself “a break from exposure to the environmental stressor” that’s causing you grief. “At the same time, the body benefits from working through the physical stress response.”
That physical element is important. Stress is our “fight or flight” mode kicking in; sometimes it’s necessary, most of the time, it’s a confusing overreaction where our body believes it’s under threat when in fact, it’s sitting at a desk, trying to work out tax returns.
“Because stress happens in the body, the best way through it is to move the body. Physical exertion sends a signal to the brain that we have done what we need to do to manage the threat, and that it is now safe to reset,” Dr Allan explains.
Breath and choose compound moves
The key to reducing stress through strength training is opting for compound exercises that work umpteen big muscle groups at once. Those are the moves that require total concentration as the whole body is moving. Remember to think about your breath; becoming mindful of how you breathe is one of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety and it can also have a big impact on how well you move through these exercises.
According to Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience: “Exercise encourages more oxygen to reach the back of the brain (which is beneficial for our mental health), and this can be boosted if we are also stimulating our brain through low-level concentration. The nature of strength training is that it is controlled and focused, which in turn regulates the breathing.”
That regulated breathing can help us to produce GABA, an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons. This, according to Dr Tang, “creates a sense of calm”.
Dr Tang also points out that the brilliant thing about exercise is that it can be done at any time – i.e when you’re already feeling good and not just as a response to feeling stressed. “As such, you are building these healthy habits at a time before you need them, and this preparation can act as a buffer – enabling you to stand stronger emotionally and mentally, as well as physically.”
5 stress-busting exercises to try
For more stress-busting ideas, head over to the Strong Women Training Club where you’ll find lots of articles, videos and recipes designed to get you mentally and physically stronger.