It’s well-known and well-documented that exercise in general makes us feel good but a question we often ponder is how does lifting weights specifically make us feel?
Strength training has grown in popularity in recent years as the benefits of it for all ages have been uncovered. More and more people are getting wise to the fact that lifting weights can help prevent a whole host of age-related conditions and illnesses.
And those people who are already in the strength training tribe most certainly know how good it makes them feel. They have learnt for themselves that it helps boost self-confidence and improves their own body image. They know that it lifts their mood when they’re feeling stressed, anxious or a bit down but how much research is actually out there about the effects strength training can have on your long-term mental health?
The answer is not enough, although more and more is starting to emerge. We took a look at what the existing scientific evidence tells us.
Lifting weights lifts moods
Adding weights to a regular exercise routine has already been shown to add muscle tone, decrease injury risk, and improve bone health. But its effects might also extend beyond the physical, as evidence now suggests that regular strength training may prevent and fight symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Now here comes the science bit. In 2017 researchers from JAMA Psychiatry examined the connection between anxiety and resistance exercise, concluding that lifting weights can help people feel less anxious and nervous.
The following year, another review was conducted by the same researchers on dozens of studies on the subject of the ‘Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms’. In a nutshell, the review looked at the evidence available on whether strength training has an effect on treating the symptoms of depression.
In layman’s terms, the review concluded that people with depression usually felt better after taking up weight training. And if they started out with ‘normal’ mental health, they ended the experiment with less chance of having become depressed than people who did not undertake weight training.
Interestingly, the number of weight training sessions per week did not seem to matter. The benefits were essentially the same regardless of whether people went to the gym twice a week or five times a week, and whether they were completing lots of repetitions of each exercise or only a few.
Age did not seem to make a difference to the results either. The impact of lifting weights was the same for younger lifters (often students) as it was for people in middle-age and the elderly.
The results also showed that people did not need to increase muscle mass to reduce depression. More strength at the end of the experiment did not necessarily correlate with less depression. The most important common factor was actually just showing up and working out, so even participants who saw few physical changes from strength training still tended to see improvements in mood.
However, only a few of the studies also included a separate group that undertook aerobic exercise rather than weight lifting, making it difficult to compare the effects of the different types of workouts.
The results seem to suggest that weight training and aerobic exercise have a similar impact on depression, although the number of people involved in the trials was small so a larger study is really needed to differentiate between the two.
In conclusion, resistance exercise such as lifting weights, often substantially reduces symptoms of depression, regardless of how melancholy people feel at first, or how often they train.
But how exactly does lifting weights boost mental wellbeing?
The leader of the 2018 review and graduate of the University of Limerick, Brett Gordon, theorises that exercise probably has both physiological and psychological consequences.
He believes that weight training could be changing aspects of the brain, including the levels of neurochemicals that influence moods. However, he also suggests that a placebo effect might be at work. If people expect to feel better after a training session then they do.
Social interaction and social support during exercise possibly also play a part in improved mental health. As does improved self-esteem. Healthy feelings of self-worth and value are an important component of good psychological health.
The sense of satisfaction evoked from achieving your goals in the gym could also play a part in boosting self-belief, self-confidence and overall happiness, especially when achieving those goals that previously seemed like a near impossible task to overcome.
There is no strong evidence yet to indicate that resistance training is better for combating depression than other kinds of exercise, or that exercise can, or should, replace traditional therapies, including medication, but overall the data available shows that lifting weights a few times a week is an effective way to boost your mental health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise each week.
Regardless of the lack of hard scientific evidence out there anyone who lifts knows just how good it makes you feel. During a session, immediately afterwards, and long term, there is no better feeling than getting stronger, both physically and mentally, growing in confidence and learning to love your body as you realise just how amazing it is.
Whether the reason is a physical response or a psychological placebo effect, lifting weights definitely makes us happy!
If you’d like any advice about strength training and or would like to get started, get in touch with us. Our expert personal trainers are on hand to guide you on your fitness journey, whatever stage you are currently at. We help people just starting out, right up to experienced athletes, and everyone else in between.
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