Most of us notice a mood boost when we get some good movement in, whether it’s dance, yoga, or a particularly challenging spin class. Many of us know that exercise is a tried and true method of improving mood, though of course it's not a mental health treatment in and of itself. But a new study shows that lifting weights can improve mood and may have particularly powerful antidepressant effects, MindBodyGreen reports.
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise in general tends to release feel-good endorphins that can boost our sense of well-being and help fight depression and anxiety; in addition to myriad physical benefits like improving health outcomes for high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis, regular exercise can help build stress resilience, and promotes beneficial social interaction when we’re feeling down. But now, research shows that weight lifting may offer especially potent antidepressant effects.
While the physical health benefits of resistance exercise training (RET) are known — like improving sleep, for instance — the effects of weight lifting on depression were less clear. In order to better understand the possible connection between resistance training and mood, researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis of 33 clinical trials including 1877 participants, and found that weight lifting showed significant antidepressant effects, regardless of participants’ varying health profiles. The study’s authors note that this is the first review of its kind, as previous research had yet to examine the effects of resistance training on depression.
In randomized clinical trials, the study’s authors established a control group of those with depressive symptoms — some involved in exercise programs, and others not — to establish a baseline for the study. Researchers found that resistance training accounted for an improvement in mood among participants, and found 54 effects from the 33 conducted clinical trials showing a significant reduction in depressive symptoms.
The study’s authors aimed to determine if age, overall health status, or the amount of exercise engaged in impacted outcomes, and found that neither age, or the amount of weights lifted, did — the benefits of weightlifting on depressed moods were clear across all participant groups. Also, skill and experience exercising didn’t have much impact on outcomes, either; regardless of skill level, strength, or amount of weights lifted, participants experienced relief from depressive symptoms.
While the review shows that weight lifting helped relieve depression among participants regardless of age, strength and skill level, or overall health status, researchers say that “better-quality randomized clinical trials” are needed to better understand the effects of resistance training on mental health. Regardless, it’s clear that resistance exercises can help in alleviating the symptoms of depression.
Another reason this is so exciting? It gives people a chance to try a form of exercise they may not have been familiar with before. If you're wondering how to start weight training safely, start slowly, Harvard Health advises. Make sure you're warming up and cooling down appropriately, and be more mindful of your form than of the amount you're lifting or the reps you're doing. You can see about taking an introductory weight lifting class at your gym, or asking an experienced friend if you can shadow them.
While research regarding exercise's effects on depression is super encouraging, it must be remembered that it exercise can never replace a doctor-supervised mental health care program, whether that involves therapy, medication, or other treatment. Treating mental illness can be a complex thing, and it often involves multiple approaches applied simultaneously to yield the best outcome. And those with significant mental health diagnoses usually need more than exercise alone to manage their health. Also, everyone is a bit different, and treatment plans are best tailored to the individual.
That said, it's exciting to know that this particularly badass form of exercise does have mood-boosting benefits. Treatment for mental illness doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing; exercise, meditation, therapy, and medication are all good things you can try. So along with your doctor, find what works best for you, and remember to take any changes you want to make to your treatment plan slowly — all while checking in with a trusted healthcare provider, too.