The healing power of bodybuilding – The Irish Times

When Cheng Xu served in the Canadian Armed Forces as a paratrooper and infantry officer, he experienced a series of traumatic events in quick succession – his best friend and fellow officer committed suicide, a soldier under his command was injured in live combat. shooting practice, and the father of a close friend has been kidnapped.

He felt like the world was collapsing everywhere around him, except in the gymnasium, where he was training for competitive Olympic weightlifting. “The only thing I had that grounded me was weightlifting because it was the only place I felt safe,” said the 32-year-old, now a PhD student in Toronto. Surrounded by the clinking and clanking of dumbbells, he slowly discovered what he described as “the healing properties of strength training.”

Psychologists have long established that exercise benefits mental health, and over the past decade research has also shown that it can be a valuable tool for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, despite weightlifting’s associations with violent muscle strains, a growing number of people who have suffered trauma are discovering that the iron is a balm. For many, the healing powers of sports come down to the fact that where trauma has left them feeling helpless, powerless and weak, weightlifting helps them feel strong not only physically, but also psychologically. “Lifting gave me a sense of agency,” Xu said. “It gave me a sense of control.” And over time, he said, those feelings led to his recovery.


People who have experienced trauma have long gravitated to the weight room, lured, in part, by the promise of increased physical strength. But these lifters have historically received little guidance on how to train in a way that promotes their mental health and recovery. Weightlifters have also had to navigate a culture of fitness that often glorifies a “no pain, no gain” approach, emphasizing performance and superficial appearances rather than long-term wellness.

“There’s a lot of toxic masculinity in strength training,” said James Whitworth, exercise physiologist and health scientist at the National Center for PTSD and assistant professor at the University’s School of Medicine. of Boston, as well as a disabled veteran.

But as more and more people of all genders and abilities have discovered the benefits of strength training, the weightlifting community is becoming more inclusive and expansive. Mental health groups have also begun to formalize weightlifting as a therapeutic tool and to educate trainers on how to support clients living with physical and psychological trauma. At the same time, the scientific community is beginning to study why, exactly, some traumatized people find that heavy lifting helps them recover.

“There’s something about weightlifting and resistance work” that builds resilience, said Chelsea Haverly, social worker and founder of Hope Ignited, an American organization dedicated to educating organizations and clinicians about trauma. . “Not just in the brain, but also in the body.”

Last year, Haverly and social worker and personal trainer Emily Young created a trauma-informed weightlifting certification program for trainers, with the goal of bringing its mental health benefits to more clients. With lifting, Haverly said, “It’s not just, ‘I can do tough things.’ This is my body can do difficult things. It’s ‘I didn’t feel strong, and now I feel like a beast.’

Rachel Sloane, a 36-year-old respiratory therapist and mother of two, who was diagnosed with complex PTSD in early 2021 after experiencing physical and sexual abuse, has experienced this transformation firsthand. She first turned to weightlifting out of a desire to take better care of her body, but the more she trained, the more secure, calm and grounded she felt outside of the gym.

“I wasn’t even trying to use weightlifting as a way to manage my mental health,” she said. But “it gave me a way to physically push back – against all the fear and helplessness I felt all the time.”

It also gave him “a growing memory bank of times when I could move anything that got in my way,” she said. After years of feeling helpless, “it created more experiences of feeling powerful, strong and capable.”

Good form of exercise

As more traumatized people affirm the benefits of facelifts, Whitworth and other psychologists strive to better understand the psychological and neurological mechanisms behind its potential as a therapeutic tool. “Enhancing someone’s physical strength in a way they can see and feel can be especially powerful for people with PTSD,” Whitworth said, “helping to reframe their view of the world, as well as their view of the world.” of themselves”.

Although almost any type of exercise benefits people with psychological trauma, Whitworth said, they reap the most psychological benefits when they engage in moderate-to-high intensity training, which includes exercise. weightlifting. High-intensity resistance training, in particular, has been shown to help improve sleep quality and anxiety, which can improve overall health and well-being.

And yet, people who have experienced trauma often avoid exercise altogether because of the physical stress response it can generate – a rapid pulse, heavy breathing, elevated body temperature – which can remind them of their trauma. For this reason, it is essential to help patients find the type of exercise that is best for them.

Yoga is often recommended for traumatized people because of its emphasis on breathing and mindfulness, but it’s not for everyone. “There’s a whole cohort of people who are either terrified of it or not attracted to it for a number of reasons,” said Mariah Rooney, social worker, yoga instructor and weightlifter. Some clients find the relative calm and stillness of yoga can trigger anxiety, she said.

effort power

In her 2021 book, Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time, personal trainer and trauma survivor Laura Khoudari explained that one of the reasons she and others connect with lifting is that it offers regular intensity breaks – which allow them to check in with themselves and gauge how they are feeling, helping them avoid feeling overwhelmed.

“Breaks give your nervous system a chance to calm down,” said Khoudari, who has also taken courses in body trauma therapy and has become a leading advocate of facelifts as a form of healing. “When we are faced with trauma, our nervous system generally has less capacity for stress, and also less resilience,” she continued. “And so you can use strength training to push back whatever stress you can handle.” Over time, this can expand our window of tolerance.

For this reason, Whitworth and others have said weightlifting could be a useful tool for people undergoing exposure therapy, during which therapists encourage patients to focus on their traumatic memories for short increments. and controlled – much like the cyclical nature of strength training. Over time, this exposure can defuse memories as well as the physical stress associated with it.

“The idea is that they can be very anxious at first,” Whitworth said. But “over time, patients begin to understand that these memories and feelings are not dangerous.”

Combining this therapy with high-intensity exercise such as weight lifting, he said, could be “particularly beneficial.”

For many traumatized people, weightlifting also helps them feel comfortable in their bodies. As Rooney explained, “bodies are often the harbingers of trauma and the carriers of trauma,” leading many people to experience a sort of mind/body disconnect. For example, if someone has experienced physical trauma related to their torso, they may feel disconnected from that part of their body as a coping mechanism. But weightlifting can help reconnect mind and body.

Take the back squat, Rooney said, in which lifters hinge at the hips and knees while resting weight on their shoulders. “There’s something about having, like, a barbell on your back that’s like, ‘Whoa, all of a sudden I can feel my spine. I can feel the back of my body. And I can’t remember the last time I felt the back of my body,” she said. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times

– Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York and author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Remodeled the World”

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Richard V. Johnson