Resistance Exercise Lowers Anxiety Symptoms in Young Adults

We review three studies that show resistance exercise can lower anxiety symptoms in young adults, higher levels of moderate-vigorous physical activity can mitigate the risks of lengthy sitting time, and physical activity is linked to lower rates of diabetic neuropathy and improved kidney function in people with type 1 diabetes.

The Health Benefits of Exercise Report is a newsletter and article series in which we select three peer-reviewed articles, summarize the key findings, and provide social media images for you to share with your community. You can read previous articles here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, maintaining a physically active lifestyle continues to present a challenge. As winter sets in—with shorter and colder days in many parts of the world—it can be even harder to be physically active. However, we know that exercise is a key measure to help prevent chronic health conditions that still affect millions of people and increase the risk of severe COVID-19. This month’s edition of the Health Benefits of Exercise Report covers:

  1. A study finding an eight-week resistance exercise program reduced anxiety symptoms in young adults,
  2. A systematic review and meta-analysis indicating higher levels of moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) can attenuate mortality risk associated with high sedentary levels, and
  3. A study showing an association between physical activity and lower rates of diabetic neuropathy in type 1 diabetes patients and better kidney function markers in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
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Resistance Exercise Lowers Anxiety Symptoms in Young Adults

In newly released guidelines, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends resistance training and muscle strengthening exercises on two or more days each week. When it comes to anxiety, evidence on the relationship between resistance training and anxiety symptoms in young adults with and without anxiety disorder is limited. In a randomized controlled trial published in Scientific Reports, researchers looked at the effect of resistance training on anxiety and worry symptoms in young adults without a general anxiety disorder.

The intervention was designed according to WHO and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines. It consisted of eight weeks of twice-weekly private sessions, with resistance increasing progressively throughout the intervention. Participants focused on eight movements:

  • barbell squat,
  • bench press,
  • hexagon bar deadlift,
  • seated lateral raise,
  • barbell bent-over rows,
  • weighted lunges,
  • seated dumbbell curls, and
  • crunches.

Prior to the intervention, participants went through a three-week orientation to become familiar with the movements, refine technique, and facilitate starting the program at the correct resistance in the first week.

Attendance to the sessions was 85%, and compliance with the programming was at 83%. Compared to a wait-listed control group, the results indicate people who completed the resistance training program saw a statistically significant reduction in anxiety symptoms. The authors note this is important because general anxiety disorder (GAD) tends to manifest around age 30, and those with subclinical symptoms are more likely to develop GAD. This study suggests a potential role for exercise training in reducing disease burden through prevention.

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Higher Levels of MVPA Can Mitigate Risks of Sedentary Time

Sitting time has long been associated with higher mortality; however, that association is not necessarily independent of physical activity. Evidence suggests regular physical activity can help attenuate the impact of sitting on mortality, but how much is necessary and at what intensity to see an effect is still unclear. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine used accelerometer-measured physical activity data to examine the relationship between physical activity frequency and intensity, sedentary time, and all-cause mortality. The study included 44,730 people from nine different prospective cohort studies from four countries:

  • Norway,
  • Sweden,
  • the U.S., and
  • the U.K.

The authors pooled and meta-analyzed data from the nine studies.

According to the findings, compared to the most active and least sedentary group, mortality risk increased with lower physical activity levels and longer durations of sedentary time. Among the most active group, the risk of mortality was 88% higher among the most sedentary third. In contrast, in the least active group, relative mortality risk went up 240% for those who spent the most time sitting.

People in the most moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) group did not see an increased risk of death with rising sedentary time. These findings suggest that higher levels of MVPA can mitigate, though not eliminate, rising risks of premature death associated with longer sitting time. Alternatively, the third of people who got the least MVPA saw a relative risk of mortality that was 263% higher than the most active, least sedentary group.

According to the study’s estimates, 30-40 minutes of MVPA per day could lessen the risks associated with high sedentary time. Among the least sedentary individuals, 11 minutes of MVPA per day may be sufficient to mitigate mortality risk. Given the increase in sedentary time during the COVID-19 pandemic, these findings would underline the importance of regular MVPA throughout the week.

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Physical Activity Associated with Delay of Diabetic Neuropathy, Better Kidney Function in People with Diabetes

Diabetic neuropathy is a common complication of uncontrolled diabetes characterized by nerve damage and pain in the legs and feet. Physical activity is well accepted and recommended to improve health outcomes for people with diabetes, but the relationship between neuropathy and physical activity is less obvious. A systematic review published in the journal Bioscience Reports looked at the effect of physical activity on diabetic neuropathy and kidney function in people with diabetes. Researchers reviewed a total of 18 studies, including 38,991 people.

The results showed an association between physical activity levels and lower rates of diabetic neuropathy in people with type 1 diabetes but not type 2. Among studies assessing kidney function, there is an association between physical activity and higher glomerular filtration rate and lower urinary albumin to creatinine ratio, both indicators of good kidney function. Physical activity was also linked to lower rates of renal failure, acute kidney injury, and microalbuminuria, an early sign of blood vessel damage that can increase heart attack and stroke risk.

These physical activity benefits on diabetic neuropathy and kidney function may be related to the beneficial effects physical activity has on blood pressure and glycemic control.

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Author avatar

Alexandra Black Larcom

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, previously served as IHRSA's Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy—a position dedicated to creating resources and projects to help IHRSA members offer effective health programs, and promoting policies that advance the industry.