I’ve been living with low mood and various forms of depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I’ve completed countless bouts of therapy, taken anti-depressants, reduced my alcohol intake, improved my diet, gone for a run, and ticked off almost every other box the doctors and specialists recommended.
With my personal experience of depression and the trials of overcoming a mental health disorder, I’m intrinsically interested in what causes people to struggle with their mental health and (more importantly) what steps we can take to reduce the symptoms.
That’s why I was so interested to hear about studies showing a link between strength training and mental health.
I knew about the proven link between heart-raising movement and better mental health… But strength training offers another solution that makes it easier for me to prevent my fitness routine from slipping and keep my physical and mental health in top form.
Naturally, I didn’t want to take all my information from a single New York Times article written in 2018, so I decided to dive deeper into the relationship between strength training and mental health. Here’s what I found:
1. Strength training reduces depression
Approximately 16.2 million adults in the US alone will experience at least one significant depressive episode in any given year. According to the WHO, over 264 million people live with depression worldwide.
If this information does nothing more than let you know you’re not alone… I’ll be happy with that.
Working out and strengthening your body can be an effective treatment for depression. A meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials and 1,877 subjects concluded resistance and weight training can significantly reduce symptoms of depression in adults of various ages, health conditions, and genders.
Although the studies didn’t explain why strength training can ease depression, if we look at the symptoms in detail, you may be able to draw your own conclusions:
- Sleep: Strength training can tire out the body, helping sleep come more easily.
- Motivation: The feeling of accomplishment when you lift heavier weights, perfect a movement, or see your muscles grow can provide you with motivation to keep going.
- Enjoyment: Smashing your goals and feeling stronger can provide a sense of fulfillment and pleasure.
- Appetite: As your body burns calories and builds muscles, you’ll need to eat more to sustain muscle growth.
- Weight: As stated above, strength training is an effective way to burn calories and help you achieve a more toned physique.
- Self-esteem: Being more physically fit, capable of carrying out tasks, and a toned body can dramatically boost self-esteem.
What’s more, strength training effectively combats symptoms of depression regardless of your overall health or how much weight training you do.
2. Weights help equip you to deal with anxiety
Approximately 40 million adults live with an anxiety disorder in the US.
Lifting weights or exercising with resistance bands (like the ones from Victorem) can be an effective way to reduce symptoms of anxiety, as shown in a 2016 review involving over 1 million participants.
A further study from 2010 backed up these findings, although both mentioned that more research is required to fully understand how and why resistance training aids anxiety.
From personal experience, I’ve found the simple rhythm of strength training movements and the focus required helps quiet my restless mind. I like to practice mindfulness as I lift weights or practice with resistance bands. Encouragement from my own fitness coach has helped me smash through barriers both physically and mentally.
Showing that I can complete the fitness tasks I’ve been set has helped me feel less anxious and more in control of my life.
3. Resistance training improves cognitive functionality
A decline in decision-making abilities, concentration, and memory is usually associated with medical conditions more common in elderly people. However, a reduction in cognitive function is also a symptom of numerous mental health disorders.
A clinical trial conducted by the University of Sidney found that strength training produced significant benefits to the hippocampus (a part of the brain that plays a significant role in learning and memory), with dramatic reductions in shrinkage due to Alzheimer’s disease that continued for up to 12 months after the training ended!
A further 2019 study looked at the relationship between body mass and brain volume, finding that exercise can actually “grow the brain and boost brain function.”
4. Strength training emphasizes the importance of productive rest
I know the struggle between just wanting to curl up under a blanket yet feeling guilty for not spending an hour in the gym all too well. When my depression takes over, it’s hard to balance the feelings of worthlessness about not doing anything with the lack of motivation to do anything about it.
But strength training has helped me embrace the value of productive rest, so I can find a better balance between pushing myself and guilt-free rest.
Incorporating productive rest days into your schedule is arguably just as crucial as getting the exercise in the first place. As we work out, our muscles are actually broken down and only rebuild stronger during periods of rest, so taking time out is essential to enable our bodies to strengthen and grow. The same is true of our minds.
A 2013 study by ScientificAmerican backs this up: establishing that taking time out is hugely beneficial for increasing productivity, replenishing attention, solidifying memories, and encouraging creativity: all aspects of cognitive function that can decline when you’re struggling with mental health.
Even just taking 60 seconds in between reps can give you a boost when working out with weights or resistance bands. Plus, it provides a valuable life lesson when you’re feeling overwhelmed: slow down, breathe, and relax.
5. Strength training can provide an overall sense of wellbeing
Exercise is a fantastic treatment for mental health struggles as it can directly target the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and more, to help you find a little more ease in your daily life.
But strength training also does more than deal with physical symptoms to improve your mental health and overall sense of wellbeing. There are lessons to be learned from strength training that can equip you with the tools, techniques, and strength (physically and mentally) to overcome daily challenges. And once you learn these lessons, you’ll find your mental health grows stronger every day… Along with your muscles!