Once, I read an essay written by someone who was struggling with depression. He didn’t want to work out, do anything productive, or even write the story. He just wanted to lay on the couch and stare into space. “Despite this,” he said, “I’m going to go to my basement in ten minutes and lift. It will make me feel better, and it will get me closer to my goals. I've done this more times than I can recall, knowing each time I don't feel like lifting. After, however, I always feel better, and I'm glad I did it.”
There’s plenty of research out there to show that exercise can help with depression. Most studies, however, look at aerobic exercise, such as cycling or jogging. Does lifting weights do the job just as well? In a paper published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers set out to answer that very question. After analyzing the results of 33 experiments on weight training and depression, here’s what they found.
For starters, strength training was linked across the board to improvements in depressive symptoms, such as low mood, a loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness. While it's not a "cure," lifting weights consistently reduced the symptoms of depression, whether someone felt formally depressed at the start of the study or not.
“Interestingly, larger improvements were found among adults with depressive symptoms indicative of mild-to-moderate depression compared to adults without such scores,” says Brett Gordon, the paper’s lead author and a researcher at Ireland’s University of Limerick. “This suggests resistance training may be particularly effective for those with greater depressive symptoms.”
What’s more, the number of weekly workouts didn’t seem to matter. The benefits were much the same, whether people trained twice or five times a week. In addition, improvements in physical strength didn’t correlate with less depression. Just getting the training done, irrespective of the amount of strength gained, seemed to help.
Resistance training, it turns out, is also a highly effective way to manage symptoms of anxiety. In one study, scientists from the University of Georgia took a group of women with generalized anxiety disorder and assigned them to one of three groups—resistance training, aerobic exercise, and a control group.
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Both types of exercise led to a significant drop in symptoms of worry, with subjects in the resistance training group seeing the best results. In fact, lifting weights just twice a week led to a remission rate that was on par with antidepressants. When researchers rounded up all the studies on resistance training and anxiety, they found that lifting weights reduced anxiety symptoms in both healthy participants as well as those with a physical or mental illness.
So how does resistance training have this effect on your psychological wellbeing? Your muscles, heart, and lungs aren’t the only things stimulated by exercise. What benefits the body benefits the brain. Just like a muscle, your brain has the capacity to change itself in response to internal and external influences, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.
This doesn’t mean that your brain is similar to plastic: Neuro refers to neurons, which are the building blocks of your brain and nervous system, while the term plasticity refers to the brain's ability to change. It was once believed that changes in the brain only took place during infancy and childhood. By the time you’re an adult, the physical structure of your brain was set. Modern research, however, shows that certain regions of your brain can change, adapt, and grow throughout your lifetime.
How does strength training affect your brain? Hormones and hormone-like substances, the production of which is ramped up during exercise, have been shown to cross from the blood into the brain, triggering changes in its structure and function. Some of these changes include the formation of new brain cells, stronger connections between those cells, as well as the creation of new blood vessels, which provide your brain with oxygen and essential nutrients.
Six months of resistance training has also been shown to increase the size of certain regions of the brain. And this change in brain structure was tied to an improvement in mental function. There are also parallels between “mindfulness" and what happens when you’re in the gym lifting weights. Yes, you’re probably sick of hearing about mindfulness, but it can be an effective way to reduce the symptoms of both anxiety and depression, delivering positive changes in psychological wellbeing and quality of life.
Mindfulness involves paying more attention to the present moment—to your own thoughts and feelings, and the sensations you’re experiencing. Mindfulness also teaches that thoughts and feelings are transient. They come and they go, and it’s up to you whether to act on them or not.
All of which is remarkably similar to what happens when you’re in the gym lifting weights. Squatting with a heavy weight across your shoulders, for example, leaves you with no option but to pay attention to the present moment. Setting up your body in just the right way, from the position of your head all the way down to your feet, and making sure that each rep is performed properly, requires intense concentration and focus.
Towards the end of a hard set, the sensations of pain and fatigue sweeping through your body are so powerful that it’s almost impossible for your attention to be anywhere else. Thoughts of throwing in the towel enter your mind. But you decide to ignore them, grit your teeth, and keep going. That’s another key feature of mindfulness—observing your thoughts and feelings, while simultaneously being detached from them. MRI scans show that a mindfulness-based program can lead to functional and structural changes in the brain. But simply going to the gym, lifting weights and training hard several times a week may do the job just as well.
To sum up, lifting weights is good for both the body and the mind. In some cases, it appears to achieve results similar to frontline treatments for depression, such as antidepressants and behavioral therapy. Strength training alone, however, is unlikely to serve as a cure for depression or anxiety, but it can help you manage both conditions, improving both your physical and psychological wellbeing.
Even if you’re currently not depressed or anxious, and would like to stay that way, lifting weights regularly can help change the structure and function of your brain, as well as trigger the release of chemicals that make you feel better.
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Christian Finn is a UK-based personal trainer who holds a masters degree in exercise science. He blogs regularly about health and fitness at MuscleEvo.