Dear Doctor: I'm a 45-year-old woman and, ever since my divorce, I've struggled with depression. I tried yoga and meditation, and they're fine. But when a friend gave me a gift certificate to a gym and I started weight lifting, I saw a real change. I'm less stressed and I feel more like myself again. Am I imagining things, or does weight lifting help you feel better emotionally? Why would that be?
Dear Reader: We're very sorry to hear that what is already a difficult life event has been made that much harder by having to deal with depression. The very nature of the condition can make it difficult to engage in new activities, and we're glad that you found something that works. In answer to your first question, no, you're not imagining things. The link between exercise and enhanced mood has been established for quite some time. And while previous research has tended to focus on the effects of aerobic activities like running, a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry earlier this year finds similar mental health benefits in resistance training.
The researchers looked at the outcomes of 1,877 participants in 33 different clinical trials. An analysis of the data from those studies showed that resistance exercise training -- that includes weight lifting -- significantly reduced symptoms of depression. What's really interesting is that the positive mental health effects of taking part in resistance training were observed regardless of the study participants' age, their overall health, their skill levels, whether or not they ultimately gained strength or muscle mass from the training, or how much weight lifting they did.
This dovetails with previous studies, which have associated resistance training with lower levels of anxiety. There have also been studies that found an improvement in cognitive function among people who added weight lifting to their regular routines. And while the new study didn't address this outcome specifically, in some previous research it appeared that women were more sensitive to the positive effects of resistance training than men. Another encouraging bit of data for novice weightlifters like yourself is that several studies found low- to moderate-intensity workouts yielded better results in terms of anxiety reduction than did high-intensity workouts.
As for why resistance training is effective for mood and anxiety disorders, theories vary. One school of thought points to endorphins, the same feel-good hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system that are associated with the "high" experienced by runners. Also of interest to researchers is an exercise-related increase in neurotrophic factors, a family of biomolecules that support the health of neurons in the brain. Weight lifting has also been shown to improve sleep in both quantity and quality. And then there are the benefits that arise from -- and we know this sounds boring -- routine and repetition.
Getting to the gym, becoming part of the flow of activity, counting the repetitions as you exercise each set of muscles, seeing and feeling the positive changes to the body -- all of these can add to a sense of independence and self-confidence.