Ease depression and anxiety through strength training (or resistance training), which includes lifting weights, doing push-ups or planks, or using elastic resistance bands.
Especially on a stressful day, strength training is how Sandra L. lifts her mood.
“After a session, I feel like I’ve relieved a lot of the tension, like a weight has been lifted off me,” says Sandra, 42. “Or if I’m experiencing anxiety, it kind of melts away.”
Strength training gives her the kind of endorphin rush she feels after a long run, but it doesn’t require nearly as much time to feel the effects, says the Etna, New Hampshire resident.
Also known as resistance training, strength training is often associated with bodybuilders, but you don’t have to be young or be a “gym rat” to do it. You can use free weights, weight machines, elastic resistance bands, or your own body weight (think push-ups and planks).
Not only is it good for your overall health, research suggests that it can help your mood.
A study published in June 2018 in JAMA Psychiatry is the first study that examined how resistance training specifically may help with depression. Researchers looked at previously published clinical trials to see if resistance training had an effect on the occurrence of depression and the severity of symptoms.
They found that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms, particularly among individuals with mild-to-moderate depression. It didn’t matter how often participants lifted or how much weight they lifted. And it didn’t matter whether they got physically stronger.
Resistance training also appeared to help those who were not diagnosed with a mental health condition, reducing the likelihood that they would experience bouts of sadness compared to those who did not weight train.
The findings suggest that strength training may help people manage depression, in combination with other treatment like medication or therapy, says Brett Gordon, MSc, post-graduate researcher at the University of Limerick in Ireland and lead author of the study.
Anxiety was addressed in another study published in the journal Sports Medicine, also led by Gordon. Researchers found that resistance training relieved anxiety symptoms among those diagnosed with physical or mental conditions as well as those not diagnosed with a condition.
The Muscle-Mind Connection
While the new studies highlight a connection between strength training and mental health, researchers aren’t sure exactly why it can boost one’s mood or cognitive function.
“The mechanism involved is still an open question,” says Peter Hall, associate professor, School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Hall says that strength training may boost the flow of oxygen-saturated blood to certain areas of the brain. Or strength training may affect different hormones and feel-good endorphins like dopamine and serotonin.
Another possible explanation? The brain may stockpile glucose—the energy it needs to function—after it experiences a challenge like strength training. Easy access to this energy source may explain higher brain processing power after a session.
“Exercise demands attention, balance, coordination, memory, motor movement, and more. All of these are brain processes, so exercise is truly a cognitive challenge as much as it’s a physical one,” says Hall. “This may explain why resistance exercise has benefits even if it doesn’t tax the cardiovascular system as much as aerobic exercise.”
When Saysha H. approaches a barbell, she’s intensely focused. She is preparing to move some heavy weights, and there is no room for error.
“Powerlifting is an extremely detail-oriented sport,” says the Brooklyn-based strength coach and musician. “You have to simplify everything and focus on one or two things. You can’t have your mind drifting when you’re trying to pick up 300 pounds.”
“Weight lifting requires deep focus in order to move the weights in a purposeful way and can be a powerful factor in being able to shift away from stress, anxiety reactions, depressive thinking, and other internal experiences,” says Justin Ross, PsyD, a Denver-based psychologist.
Sandra also likes lifting because it has a meditative quality that gets her out of her own head.
“I can turn my brain off in terms of stress and anxiety,” she says. “I have to focus on the lifts and movements to make sure I have proper form.”
Research has shown that exercise can help people regulate their emotions better and help how people react to negative situations, explains Hall from the University of Waterloo.
Mental energy and clarity is one reason why Bob D., 49, is committed to weight training. The Tulsa, Oklahoma resident hits the gym at his YMCA several times a week, typically before heading to work in the evening. It helps him feel more focused.
“If I miss a workout, it’s almost like I’m going in dragging. I feel mentally cloudy,” he says. “If I get in a good workout, even if I feel whooped [physically], I feel energized.”
Routine and Goals
Getting into a weight-training routine can build confidence and self-esteem over time, making it a powerful tool for mental health.
“You can set goals to move more weight and get stronger,” says Ross, the psychologist. “Pretty soon a five-pound dumbbell becomes a 10-pound dumbbell. When you see tangible gains, it can help with real-world self-esteem.”
“A great lift is a good 30 workouts in the making,” says Bob. “You start at point A. To get to point B, it involves a lot of average days of just showing up. It’s about meeting this expectation that you’ve set for yourself.”
Ross sees the real-world change that working with weights brings to his patients. “They experience more connection to goals and purpose,” he says.
“I never considered myself an athlete,” says Saysha, competitive powerlifter and aspiring pro strongwoman. “For me, to have this physical activity that’s very skill based, and having the satisfaction of putting a little more weight on the bar each time, it got me addicted. It’s good for people like me who are cerebral and tend to over-analyze.”
For years, Saysha worked as a highly respected personal trainer in corporate gyms. “I got disillusioned because [the corporate fitness world] focused on body image in an unhealthy way. It deeply fed into my chronic anxiety and depression,” she says.
A little over 10 years ago, she read an article that featured women who didn’t look like the typical fitness model. “There were pictures of women who looked a lot like me doing pull-ups and lifting barbells. It was really intriguing,” says Saysha.
Because trying to measure up to society’s idea of a “perfect” look can lead to a spiral of depression and anxiety, Saysha appreciates that her progress in the weight room isn’t tied to her body image or how much she weighs on the scale.
Instead, she can set very objective, athletic goals for her training, such as lifting a certain amount of weight or technically perfecting a specific exercise. “I have a vision and a purpose. I am always working towards something,” she explains.
“[Strength training is] empowering, confidence building and one of the most transformative things I’ve done,” she says.
Strength training can give your mood a lift. Talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine, and check out these tips:
A Coach Can Help: Working one-on-one with a certified coach can be a great way to get comfortable with weight training. They can introduce you to exercises that are appropriate for your fitness, and—most importantly—make sure you are doing the exercises with correct form to avoid injury. Do your research and talk to your local gym or YMCA. Look for trainers who are certified by a reputable organization such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) or the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Exercise at Home: You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a fancy gym membership or trainer to reap the benefits of strength training. Resistance bands are an inexpensive (and effective!) way to work your muscles. Gallon milk jugs or full water bottles also make great weights, too. Or try exercises that use your body weight like push-ups, planks, lunges, and squats.
Stream It: Thanks to technology, you can now access all types of workouts whenever and wherever you want. From YouTube to apps to DVDs, there is an endless variety of free or low-cost strength training programs to try. Your local public library may also have videos to borrow.
Log Your Workouts: Recording your workouts can be a powerful tool. You’ll have a record of your progress—how much you can lift now compared to when you started, which can be motivating. It’s also an opportunity to note how you felt emotionally before and after a session.
Start Slowly: Especially if you are new to resistance training, start slowly to reduce your risk of injury. Start with one day a week and work up to two or three days a week. This will give your body time to recover between sessions. And you don’t need to exercise for hours at a time. Even if it’s just 10 minutes, showing up and working your muscles is what matters when it comes to lifting your mood.
Printed as “Muscles & Mood”, Spring 2019
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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