If you’ve ever felt blah but made yourself do your run or workout anyway, you likely know exercise can shift your mood 180 degrees. It’s not all in your head, either — science has found people who exercise are happier than those who aren’t active.
WHY STRENGTH TRAINING MAY HELP
Now new research suggests strength training, in particular, may help alleviate symptoms of depression. In a meta analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry in June, researchers looked at 33 clinical studies on resistance training and depression. They found weight training significantly reduced depressive symptoms, regardless of the total training volume, any improvements in strength or the person’s overall health.
Although more research is needed to explain this connection, theories include the expectancy of improved mental health post-workout, social interaction and social support during a workout, improved cognitive control and changes in body systems that are involved in how depression develops and how exercise affects the brain, says lead study author Brett Gordon, a postgraduate researcher in the department of physical education and sport sciences at the University of Limerick in Ireland.
The new research also supports previous work that found resistance training appears to be more effective for those with more severe depression.
WEIGHTS AS THERAPY
Psychiatrist Dr. David Puder, host of the Psychiatry & Psychotherapy Podcast, will sometimes prescribe weight training to clients as part of their treatment program. “It has an additive benefit to the other work I do with them,” he says. He’s seen weightlifting help clients increase their energy, ability to focus and interest and pleasure in doing things, as well as decrease feelings of guilt, anxiety, hopelessness, apathy and suicidal thoughts. Some clients also have improved appetite and are able to decrease their medications.
“Lifting and lifting heavy can help [the] body to start to regulate itself,” he says. “Our bodies were meant to move and were likely meant to lift heavy things once in a while. It brings our bodies back into alignment with how we were meant to move in the world.”
Resistance training isn’t a magic bullet, and there isn’t any single best protocol. Puder recommends finding a trainer or other resource to learn how to properly do basic barbell lifts, such as squats, bench presses, deadlifts and overhead presses. “If strength training will work for you, you’ll usually know within the first couple of months,” he says.
Still, lifting isn’t a replacement for therapy. If you have depression, supplement seeing a psychotherapist or psychiatrist with weight training, Puder adds. If you aren’t sure where start, consider searching for a practitioner on Psychology Today or Good Therapy.