It’s common for people who have lived through traumatic experiences to report trouble sleeping and constant feelings of anxiety. According to new research, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might benefit from high-intensity resistance training — in other words, weightlifting or strength training — which was found to reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality.
James Whitworth is a postdoc researcher at the Boston VA Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine. He is also a veteran who fought in Iraq. While stationed there, the researcher remembers how he and other soldiers would find it easier to deal with the psychological stress of warfare after exercising. Now, many years later, Whitworth has used this experience as a starting point for a new study that investigated the relationship between resistance training and changes in PTSD symptoms.
Whitworth and colleagues recruited 22 participants with PTSD who were split into two groups: a resistance training group and a control group. The resistance training group performed three, 30-minute high-intensity training sessions per week over the course of three weeks. Meanwhile, the control group completed three, 30-minute study sessions focusing on various topics unrelated to exercise or PTSD per week for three weeks.
Both types of interventions reduced PTSD symptoms for the participants. However, those in the resistance-training group showed significantly better improvements in sleep quality and reductions in anxiety symptoms compared to the control group.
This was not the first study that found exercising can improve PTSD symptoms. For instance, Mathew Fetzner and Gordon Asmundson at the University of Regina found that two weeks of stationary biking can be helpful in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving mood. Researchers at Loughborough University have reviewed multiple studies that looked at the impact of exercising and physical activity on combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD, finding that physical activity (i.e. surfing) enhances well-being in veterans by reducing symptoms and improving coping strategies.
In the future, the researchers would like to see their study replicated for a larger sample size and in other populations. One important question that they would like to see answered is how exactly exercise affects the psychological health of PTSD patients.
“The findings of this study suggest that three weeks of high intensity resistance training can improve aspects of sleep and reduce anxiety in individuals who screen positive for PTSD. The results further support the safety, feasibility, and acceptability of resistance training for this population. These results are preliminary, and should be further verified by larger adequately powered trials,” the authors concluded in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity.