There are mountains of evidence pointing to the benefits of aerobic exercise for mental health. Some say running is a catabolic activity (break down) and weightlifting, is anabolic (build up). And both promotes the release of the feel-good hormones such as testosterone, amongst others.
There are two new studies that lend scientific credence to lifting weights helps ease anxiety and depression.
The first, published in 2017 in the journal Sports Medicine, found that lifting weights reduces the symptoms of anxiety. The second, published this year in JAMA Psychiatry, found that lifting weights can help ease and even prevent depression. Both of these studies are particularly valuable because they are meta-analyses (comprehensive reviews of multiple experiments). In other words, these aren’t just one-off findings.
Though neither study shows a clear mechanism by which weightlifting improves our state of mind, it’s likely a combination of changes in both biology and psychology. In addition, weight training helps you learn to “endure the physical and emotional discomfort” that comes with pushing hard, which is actually congruent with the goals of clinical approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Weightlifting can provide a one-two punch. In the short term, something about the physical exertion really can lift the mood. The longer-term effect is that weightlifting can make you feel empowered, confident, and ready to take on any challenge there may be in the rest of the day.
Kory Stotesbery, a psychiatrist in San Francisco, California, has noticed that in his ten years of clinical practice, some patterns of predictable improvement. What seems to be consistent is a person with depression being in a state of I can’t and then seeing some signs of I can. Depression is a paucity of hope and anxiety is a paucity of confidence. This is precisely why weightlifting is so effective.
“Sports, particularly those that intentionally engage physical discomfort as a requisite for success, seem higher yield in their engagement of I can,” Stotesbery says. “Maybe the path of a depressed person from bed to the shower to work isn’t that dissimilar from a weightlifter’s path from ‘this can destroy me’ to ‘I love showing myself it won’t destroy me.’ While elite lifting involves skill, intro-level stuff is pretty plug-and-play. It’s very easy to engage in a positive flow state with easily modified challenges and constant feedback on progress.”
Consider Brett Bartholomew. Long before he became a well-known strength and conditioning coach, Bartholomew struggled with depression as a youth. Lifting weights was a central component of his recovery. “Strength training allowed me to apply a concerted focus and effort against an otherwise immovable force,” he says. “Heading into sessions, I was unsure if I could handle the strain, but over and over again I proved to myself that I could. This spilled over out of the gym, too.”
Though the effects of weightlifting on mental health are encouraging, it is not—nor is any other exercise—a substitute for therapy or medication, especially in more severe cases of anxiety and depression. But what the evidence does show is that lifting, starting at just two days per week, can help ease the burden and, once someone is in recovery, prevent relapse.
As Bartholomew says, “There’s something special about being under the bar.” And I can attest to that. There are not a lot of things more gratifying then lifting heavy shit and putting it back down. And it is particularly sweet when you get to dump.
If you are currently experiencing severe anxiety or depression, you can talk to someone right now at the Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Taken from an article written by Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) who writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.
Lindsey Brooke Hopkins, a psychologist in Oakland, California contributed to the article.