If getting your sweat on in the weights room is your training method of choice, we have good news that goes beyond the aesthetic benefits.
New science suggests resistance training also has positive effects for our mental health, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety – and potentially even preventing it. Here’s what we know so far, plus the evidence-backed strategies for reducing your risks.
Lift to bust anxiety
A 2017 meta-analysis of past strength training studies (16 studies in total, involving 922 participants, 68 per cent of them female) found that lifting weights can help individuals feel less anxious and nervous.
However, if you’re intimidated by the weight room, don’t stress: reducing symptoms of anxiety with exercises doesn’t have to mean deadlifting or bench pressing like a powerlifter. In fact, the opposite may be more effective. One study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, which measured anxiety in terms of specific traits such as feelings of tension and apprehension, found that high-intensity resistance training was actually less likely to decrease anxiety symptoms. Instead, using low to moderate weights that are lighter than 70 per cent of what you can lift for one rep had the greatest impact on anxiety.
Fight off depression
But can strength training ease the condition of depression? An important review of research addressing this very question was published earlier this year in JAMA Psychiatry.
The results of this large review found that resistance training consistently reduced the symptoms of depression, and it didn’t matter how much participants were lifting or how frequently they were going to the gym; the benefits were the same whether they were training fives times per week or just twice per week, or whether they were doing slow and heavy reps or lots of lighter reps. Furthering this point, one study of 33,000 people over 11 years demonstrated that just one to two hours per week was enough to prevent depression.
Short and sweet
Another takeaway from the large study was to keep workouts short – under 45 minutes. Erin Haugen, Ph.D., LP, CMPC, a sports psychologist based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, agrees. ‘Leave yourself wanting a little bit more rather than overdoing it,’ she says. ‘And do the type of physical activity you enjoy rather than what you feel you should do. ‘Should’ statements are often prominent with people experiencing depression.’
Limited visible results? No worries.
The benefits of strength training on mood were seen across all ages, from college students to middle-aged or elderly. And perhaps most importantly, people didn’t need to see physical improvement to feel less depressed. Previous research from Harvard Medical School suggested that exercise-triggered endorphins may play a role, but strength training offers the additional opportunity of overcoming obstacles in a controlled, predictable environment. This increases perseverance and grit, the traits of mental resilience, which helps you bounce back from difficult experiences.
In summary, it’s not about how much weight you can lift at the gym, or how many hours you clock up, or even the gains you make – what matters is showing up.