How Strength Training Can Reduce Anxiety and Depression
We all know about the benefits of exercise on our health and wellbeing. But what about our mood? Anecdotally, almost anyone who exercises regularly will confirm that they just ‘feel’ better when they are moving their bodies and sweating while working out.
But ‘feel’ is one thing. There’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests that the mood-boosting properties of exercise are actually embedded in the chemical reactions that happen on a cellular level in our bodies.
And there’s more. There’s a strong chance that lifting weights, in particular, can have positive effects on reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Why It Matters
Depression is a clinically diagnosed mental illness. And as a society, because of the work of organisations like Beyond Blue and Movember, we understand it a lot better than we used to. The acceptance of the condition as a genuine health problem has risen dramatically.
Worldwide, depression affects around 300 million people. For context, that is roughly equivalent to the population of the United States. And along with that number, the economic toll through sick days and lower productivity is estimated at $US 118 billion.
But apart from the data, there are very real personal outcomes and downsides. Depression is often linked with increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even general failure to comply with medical treatments for other illnesses.
What Are the Current Treatments
Typically, depression is treated with a mixture of therapy (speaking with a mental health professional) and prescription medication. But each of these treatments come with drawbacks. Therapy is expensive and can be hard to access, particularly for those from rural areas. For many, it also carries a stigma, and the hurdle of getting to therapy can be a high one to overcome because it requires the person to first self-identify they have a problem and approach a front-line medical professional like a general practitioner (GP) to get a referral.
Medication is also proven to work. However, like any pharmacological product, treatments can come with side effects, and it can take some time to find the medication and dosage that works best for each person.
Ultimately, if two tools are currently available to use to help with anxiety and depression, that’s great. But wouldn’t it be better if there were more?
Protective Properties of Exercise
Many studies show that some of the precursors to anxiety and depression include chemical imbalances in the body. And it is also well-understood that exercise releases a whole cocktail of beneficial hormones into our bodies that leads to different chemical reactions and production.
But the recent research coming out of some of the world’s top universities suggests that the two might actually be linked. In effect, the mood boosting chemicals released by strenuous exercise involving resistance training might actually have protective effects against the mood lowering chemicals that contribute to depression and anxiety.
Science and Strength Training
A group of researchers recently completed something called a ‘meta-analysis’. That sort of project looks at a range of studies that were all conducted on a similar topic to see if there is any consistent pattern in the data.
In this one, the authors looked at over 30 clinical trials. Those 30 clinical trials had enrolled over 1,800 people. And what they found was incredibly encouraging for those who struggled with anxiety and depression.
Specifically, trial participants who were suffering from mild to moderate depression saw ‘significant’ reductions in the negative symptoms associated with clinically diagnosed depression. This benefit came at a fairly insignificant ‘cost’ as well. Those who saw the benefits did resistance training just two or more times a week, compared to those who did less than that.
The really encouraging sign was that even those with more significant symptoms saw the benefits of a relatively mild change in their exercise behaviour.
The key takeaways from the study are also interesting. It suggests that strength training should be a ‘baseline’ addition to any program to help treat the symptoms of depression. It does not rule out other treatments like speaking with a training mental health professional or being prescribed medication. But it does suggest that any treatment can be ‘turbocharged’ with the addition of this simple lifestyle change.
Follow-Ups and Tweaks
Follow-up studies have looked at how the strength and resistance training part can be tailored to give the maximum benefit, with the lowest possible burden on the person. For example, many people avoid strength and resistance training because they find it daunting or too complicated.
As a result, programs that are simpler, easy to understand and quick to implement with low amounts of equipment would seem to be better.
An Irish University looked at exactly this problem. Instead of a complicated regimen involving multiple pieces of equipment, they designed a program that had some of the most easily recognised and learned moves: squats, lunches, crunches and simple dumbbell movements.
At the end of eight weeks, the group that did this simple routine reported anxiety levels 20% lower than the group that didn’t do any strength exercise. Interestingly, the benefit was also reported as greater than the benefits that came from purely aerobic exercise.
Another interesting finding was that the strength training did not have to result in the participants getting physically stronger or bigger in order to get the mental benefits. While those beneficial outcomes might still occur, it’s encouraging to learn that the mental benefits of the training happen regardless of the physical outcomes.
In addition, some study participants reported that the sense of pride and satisfaction that came from increasing the amount that they lifted, from having a consistent routine, or from learning a new skill all contributed to their improved mood. So it’s not just simply the chemical reactions that work in favour of the mood boosting properties of strength training; it’s also the self-confidence and skill development that helps.
When exercise is for physical reasons, it’s easy to see the benefits. But when it’s to improve our mental fitness, the improvements in how we feel are not only evident; they are backed by science. Exercise, and specifically strength training, has been the subject of increased research focus. And the results seem to consistently point in the same direction: there are measurable, repeatable mood-boosting properties to consistent strength training for those who suffer from anxiety and depression.
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