Get Stronger and Reduce Anxiety, Suggests New Research

April 22, 2021 by
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New research from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA suggests that greater physical strength might be correlated with reduced levels of anxiety. 

The details: The April 2 article, “Physical Strength Partly Explains Sex Differences in Trait Anxiety in Young Americans,” published in the academic journal, Psychological Science, measured grip strength and self-perceived physical formidability, and discovered that both greater grip strength, as well as perceived strength, was associated with lower levels of anxiety in both men and women, explained Dr. Damian Murray, a social psychologist and one of the study’s researchers.

  • The impetus of the study came from the well-established finding in personality psychology that women tend to be more anxious than men. “So we wanted to look at whether this is at least in part attributable to physical capacity,” Murray explained.
  • The research was broken into two studies. The first included 374 Tulane University students, while the second included 504 participants.
  • Along with testing their grip strength and ranking their perceived physical abilities in relation to their peers, participants completed a standardized Big Five Personality Traits questionnaire. 
  • Specifically, Murray and his team were interested in looking at how strength is related to neuroticism, one of the big five personality traits that is made up of three facets: anxiety, depression and emotional volatility. 
  • The results found that, while greater grip strength and perceived strength was only weakly related to neuroticism as a whole, its effect on anxiety was highly significant, Murray said.

Why grip strength: “It’s the best practical measure of physical strength you can test within a lab setting without having to take people through an entire max body workout,” Murray explained. 

  • “It’s highly correlated with upper body strength, high enough that even if we did an hour long physical assessment we wouldn’t get much more of a reliable indicator of strength.”

One big thing: While much personality and sex research has been done on anxiety levels between men and women, there has been little research conducted on why this is the case. So these groundbreaking results might be useful in how we intervene to reduce anxiety, Murray explained. 

  • “We’re certainly not suggesting that physical strength 100 percent explains how anxious you are. But anxiety has real health implications. It hurts our mental health, our physical health and our relationships too, so uncovering even a small part of what might contribute to anxiety can allow us to (find ways) reduce it…Maybe it could be just starting to weight train,” he said. 

The big picture: Though admittedly just one small piece of the puzzle, Murray believes his research “begs for controlled research” that examines the effect of gaining physical strength on anxiety. It could be as simple as following people who start a weight training program and monitoring their anxiety levels as they improve their strength, Murray said. 

  • “I’d like to see if there’s more here about using strength training to reduce anxiety. That’s what I want to do,” he said. 

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