5 mental health benefits of strength training

Dr Haran Sivapalan


October 10, 2018

Most us know that exercise is excellent not just for our physical health, but for our mental health too. But, are some activities better than others in this regard? A recent review found that those practicing team sports, e.g. soccer, baseball, hockey, had the fewest days of poor mental health. Presumably, this is partly due to the core social element of such sports: being around others and forging relationships has obvious benefits for our psychological health; we are, after all, social animals.

Endurance activities, such as running and cycling, are also touted for their mental health benefits, both in the scientific literature and anecdotally. On the latter note, several people from my running club (myself included) remark that running has helped them cope with depressive illness.

And how about resistance or strength training? It's well established that resistance training affords a host of physical benefits: stronger muscles, increased bone mineral density, prevention of age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) and a lower risk of falls, to name a few.

By contrast, the mental health benefits of resistance training are less well researched. Is lifting weights a key to a healthy mind? In celebration of World Mental Health day, let's take a look at what the science says.

Lifting eases depression

Depression is a common illness. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 300 million people worldwide live with the condition, which is characterized by low mood, loss of enjoyment, reduced energy and disturbances to sleep and appetite.

If you suffer from depressed mood, lifting weights can help. A meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials, totaling 1877 subjects, concluded that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults. More in-depth analysis showed that these mental health benefits were more pronounced for people performing low-to-moderate intensity strength training. In addition, people with mild-to-moderate depression seemed to reap the most benefits.

Lifting reduces anxiety

Modern life is stressful, and we can all get anxious from time to time. Feelings of restlessness, constant worry, shaking and muscle tension are all symptoms of anxiety.  Luckily, strength training can also help here. A review of 7 studies found that moderate-intensity strength training led to small but significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety. It's worth bearing in mind, however, that the subject of these studies were adults not diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder.

Weight training raises self-esteem

One component of good psychological health is having healthy self-esteem: a feeling of self-worth and value. A large meta-analysis of 113 studies did find that strength training did lead to a small increase in self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, given the effects of strength training on muscle mass and body definition, people had better body image and beliefs in their physical capabilities – all of which falls under the banner of ‘physical self-esteem'.

Weight training helps cognitive function

Studies suggest that, in older adults, resistance training can improve and delay the decline in memory, attention and decision making. One clinical trial, entitled the SMART (Study of Mental and Resistance Training) study, analyzed people with mild cognitive impairment, a syndrome where there is a slight but noticeable decline in cognitive abilities. Compared to brain training alone, resistance training combined with brain training led to improved cognitive function, with benefits maintained for 18 months afterward.

Weight training helps overall well-being

I asked my colleague, Genetic Coach Paul Rose, for his views on how resistance training has helped him psychologically. Here's his rather poignant response:

"I see strength training as an extremely meditative practice. It starts with a mobility and stretching session to grasp how your mind and body are feeling on that day, and how you are going to approach the session - priming your muscles and movement patterns before the main event.

During the session, you are focused solely on the task at hand, your mind detached from anything else, not wondering about how that meeting will go in the afternoon. You feel the weight of the load that you need to overcome, the tension in your muscles as they contract to generate force, you control your breath between movements.

Once you have finished your session and looked back on your performance, you reflect on your accomplishments and areas for improvement. You also get a deep sense of satisfaction when you reach goals, especially those that before seemed like a near impossible task to overcome.

Adrenaline sports that involve a high degree of risk involved, such as free rock climbing, motorcycling, snowboarding, etc. all require a state of present attentiveness or 'flow' to perform optimally.

For the average person, it is quite hard to find activities in life that can put you in a similar state of presence, without the inherent risk involved. Although, from personal experience, moving a damn heavy object with all of the might you can muster and the impending fear that you will fall flat on your arse, comes pretty close!"

So, there you have it – 5 evidence-based ways that hitting the gym can help improve your mental health. That said, it's important to remember that exercise, resistance training or otherwise, is not a panacea for mental illness. Nor is it a substitute for seeking professional, medical help.

If you are suffering from a mental health condition, it is strongly advised to consult a medical professional.

Dr Haran Sivapalan

A qualified doctor having attained full GMC registration in 2013, Haran also holds a first-class degree in Experimental Psychology (MA (Cantab)) from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in the philosophy of cognitive science from the University of Edinburgh. Haran is a keen runner and has successfully completed a sub-3-hour marathon during his time at FitnessGenes.

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