Resistance training can improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety in those who likely have PTSD

A new study provides preliminary evidence that high-intensity resistance training can improve sleep quality and anxiety in adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. The research has been published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity.

“I’ve always enjoyed being physically active, but my interest in exercise for mental health and related issues (e.g., poor sleep quality) stems from my military days,” said study author James W. Whitworth, a postdoctoral researcher at the Boston VA Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine. (His comments do not necessarily represent the official views of the Department of Veterans Affairs.)

“When I was deployed to Iraq, my battle buddies and I would exercise to blow off steam and deal with the stressors of combat. It worked for us at the time and years later those experiences served as the impetus for my line research,” Whitworth explained.

For their study, the researchers recruited 22 participants who had reported having experienced at least one lifetime traumatic event and who had been screened positive for PTSD.

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a 3-week resistance training group or a 3-week control group. The resistance training group completed three, 30-minute high–intensity exercise sessions per week, while the control group completed three, 30-minute sessions of learning about various topics unrelated to exercise or PTSD per week.

In a surprise to the researchers, the reductions in PTSD symptoms were roughly equal between both groups. They believe a longer intervention may be necessary for bigger differences to manifest. But Whitworth and his colleagues did find that those in the resistance training group had greater reductions in anxiety symptoms and improvements in sleep quality compared to the control group.

“Perhaps the two biggest things I’d like people to take from our study is, first, resistance training (e.g., weightlifting or strength training) — even high-intensity resistance training — appears to be a safe mode of exercise for individuals who likely have PTSD. This is consistent with the results of studies examining aerobic exercise and PTSD,” Whitworth told PsyPost.

“The second main takeaway would be that in addition to being safe, the evidence suggests that participating in high-intensity resistance training may also improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety in individuals who likely have PTSD. This is particularly compelling and has clinical value because poor sleep quality is one of the most common and difficult to treat problems reported by individuals with PTSD.”

Though the study found promising results, more research is needed to confirm the findings.

“Similar to other pilot research, the results of this study should be taken with a grain of salt until they can be replicated on a larger scale and in other populations. Overall, there is a lot of work to be done before we have a clear understanding of how and why exercise affects the short and long-term health of individuals with PTSD,” Whitworth explained.

“One direction that futures studies could take to broaden our understanding would be by examining the comparative effects of exercise dose (e.g., exercise frequency, intensity, duration, and mode) on sleep, anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and other PTSD-related outcomes. This will help researchers to determine if an optimal prescription of exercise for PTSD exists.”

The study, “High intensity resistance training improves sleep quality and anxiety in individuals who screen positive for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled feasibility trial“, James W. Whitworth, Sanaz Nosrat, Nicholas J. SantaBarbara, and Joseph T. Ciccolo.