This lockdown period due to COVID–19 has no doubt brought on many physical, psychological, emotional, social and financial challenges to us all. Physically, far less incidental activity is happening, we just are not moving as much – bed, desk, kitchen, couch, bed, repeat. With the gyms closed, strength training has disappeared from most people lives.
Now while there are many ways you can continue strength training in your home environment (which the experts at Absolute can help you with) that is not what I am going to delve in to today.
During this lock down period there has been a drastic increase in demand for mental health services as well as increases in suicide rates. Access to gyms, team sports, physical activity and the socialisation that goes along with it plays a critical role in positive mental wellbeing. While aerobic activity is often cited for its mental health benefits, an often missed, and only recently understood aspect of strength training is the myriad of benefits it has on anxiety, depression, self-esteem, body image and cognition.
Please note, these are the views and research pertaining to how strength training relates to mental health and are not a replacement to speaking to a professional. If you are experiencing challenges within your own life please contact:
- beyondblue.org.au or 1300 22 4636
- lifeline.org.au or 13 11 14
- blackdoginstitute.org.au or
- healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-helplines for many more
Strength training is increasingly promoted for its many health-related benefits including a lower risk to all causes of mortality, fewer cardiovascular events (i.e., heart attack, stroke), improved body composition, better glucose metabolism & insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure in persons with pre-hypertension and hypertension (1). On top of that, strength training is the most impactful intervention for the prevention and/or management of osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome, and improving outcomes for patients, pre, during and post cancer treatment. (More details on why developing muscle is critical in health and disease can be found HERE, and cancer HERE).
Unfortunately, much less research, and therefore media promotion, has focused on the mental health benefits of strength training. The mental and cognitive benefits of aerobic based activities have been studied since the late 70’s/early 80’s, but the first detailed systematic review that focussed solely on true strength training did not occur until 2010 (2)! Not jazz aerobics or step class, not stair climbing, not gardening, not just a by-product of aerobic interventions that had some strengthening effect, but proper planned high force-production, barbells, dumbbells, external resistance!
So, let’s split this up into sections as Mental Health is such a broad term with many facets, and each of them are impacted to varied extents through different mechanisms.
Strength Training and Anxiety
In Australia, anxiety is the most common mental health condition, affecting on average 1 in 4 people (1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men) – Beyond Blue. Anxiety is generally manifested with feelings of nervousness, fear, apprehension and worry. It is normal for anyone to experience some levels of anxiety in their day with things like interviews, tests, meetings, new challenges or performances, lock down and of course as we all know too well now, isolation! These feelings are normal, however, with prolonged and heightened symptoms, anxiety is associated with poor sleep, mental distress, physical pain, poor health and limitations to physical activity.
Systematic reviews of strength training and anxiety are few and far between, as it is for all areas of mental health as I mentioned. What has been seen though where studies have been conducted , without fail, is that strength training creates meaningful symptom changes for people suffering from anxiety (3-10).
Lifting weights is the crux of strength training, so how heavy should you lift? Loading strategies of moderate intensity (50%-60% of your 1 repetition maximum effort) are seen to be more effective than those of high intensity loads (80%+ of 1-RM), but both are better than intensities 50% and lower (3-10). Studies in healthy population (3-7) showed larger changes in reducing anxiety symptoms than those conducted in populations receiving medical treatment (8,9), it is not clear yet on the effects of resistance training for people with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders.
This highlights the need for proper external loading, excluding bodyweight exercises such as chin-ups, or bodyweight lunges, squats and push-ups, where difficulty or Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is at least 5-8/10.
Strength Training and Depression
In life, everyone will experience feelings of sadness and depression. However, intense and sustained feelings of sadness may lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness resulting in mood disturbances, fatigue, lack of motivation, insomnia, restlessness, agitation, and body weight fluctuations. More studies have looked at the effect of strength training in persons with symptoms of depression than any other area of Mental Health, and the results of them have been unanimously positive (2). In fact, strength training provides better results than aerobic exercise alone on symptoms of depressions. To see the impact strength training has vs aerobic training on improvements in depressive symptoms see the table below (10).
The more you need the benefits, the greater the positive impact strength training has on depression. Studies that have investigated the effect of strength training with clinically diagnosed depressed adults, not just depression symptoms, have seen the largest large reductions in depression of all populations (11-14). What I found most enjoyable to read was was, compared it to running directly strength training win hands down! (11) Of course, individual exercise preferences will influence the response to the varied modes of exercise, but as a strength coach who thinks weightlifting is a gift from the gods, I had a big smile reading that one.
Strength Training and Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is a person’s opinion about herself/himself. It is a personality characteristic of how someone regards his/her self-worth, self-respect and self-integrity, and high self-esteem is highly associated with positive physical and mental well-being (15, 16).
Strength training has been shown to improve self-esteem in populations ranging from healthy young individuals all the way through to older adults and those with conditions/illness including cancer, stroke and cardiac rehabilitation (7,8,12,17-20). How this works, well I can’t say it more eloquently than O’Connor et. Al. (2)
“The evidence from at least 6 randomized trials supports the conclusion that strength training alone is associated with improvements in overall self-esteem. Theory as well as cross-sectional and related longitudinal exercise studies that were not focused on strength training alone suggests that changes in overall self-esteem and other aspects of quality of life and mental health, including depression symptoms, may be mediated by changes in more narrow aspects of the self, such as physical self-efficacy or physical self-worth” To read more about how strength training impacts body image and self-esteem check out my article HERE.
Strength Training Will Also Improve Brain Cognition!
Cognition refers to the brain’s processing ability to obtain knowledge through thought, experience and the senses. A key area of cognition that is researched in great detail, perhaps because it is easier to quantify, is ‘executive functioning’. Executive function is the ‘command and control’ conductor of cognitive skills. This brain control centre is what manages all of the tasks we perform in life, such as reading, writing an article like this one, problem solving, and organisation. It plays a key role in being successful in a professional and academic sense.
Most research looking at how strength training may benefit cognition has been on older adults, as it is thought that this population would benefit most in reducing the decline of cognition capacity, and therefore have a greater impact on quality of life – with a particular focus on prevention and reduction of dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms. But it has also been demonstrated in children that muscular fitness developed through strength training is favourably associated with academic performance (23, 24). To read more about why your child should be regularly engaged with strength training read this 2-part article HERE.
More research is of course still required on whether strength training alone will impact cognition positively, but the few trials that have assessed the impact strength training in isolation, and not a combined method with aerobic exercise, have seen positive small to moderate improvements in cognition (3,7,25-28). Significantly larger improvements are seen in cognitive function when aerobic training is combined with strength training compared with aerobic training alone (29). All the above referenced studies showed that strength training alone leads to significant improvements in memory.
I have a theory that the positive cognition effects of strength training would be further improved the more technically demanding the type of lifting is. Studies conducted thus far have used basic machine, body weight and banded modes of resistance, whereas I believe that if you throw in learning some Olympic lifting and more dynamic lifts in the mix that the cognition benefits will be even greater! Watch this space….
How Does Strength Training Improve Mental Health?
The mechanisms how strength training improves mental health are speculative at this time. A 2010 systematic review by O’Connor et. Al. (2) proposed that there is a complex network of neurophysiological adaptations that occur with strength training that directly and indirectly effect mental processes. One of the key potential mechanisms is the many physical health benefits of strength training mentioned at the start of this article have a direct and indirect affect on someone’s mental well-being. In addition, resistance training may improve the body’s central nervous system functioning which could positively affect your mental health (2).
Other theories suggest that strength training is likely to induce multi-factorial adaptations involving new nerve cell generation in the brain, an increase in neurotransmitters (chemical substances that transmits nerve impulses across a synapse), and new brain blood vessels that lead to more efficient oxygen delivery and waste product removal within the brain itself.
Resistance training also increases the production of protective neurotrophin genes and protein expression in the brain. One key type of neurotrophin, or growth factor, is kynurenine. Kynurenine controls and promotes the growth of new neurons; as well as components of the body’s opioid and endocannabinoid systems, which play roles in pain control and mood regulation.
With training kynurenine is converted to the neuroprotective agent kynurenic acid in working muscles (30). But……without exercise kynurenine is converted to the neurotoxic agent quinolinic acid, linked to depression (31). Strength training, and exercise in general, not only protects your body from damage, injury and insult, but it does the same for your brain! To nerd out more on this check out this great video HERE.
Wrapping it up
Mental Illness continues to be a growing area of global concern, and the current climate is only adding to the challenges we face. Isolation, financial strain, loss of control can increase the issues for those already dealing with mental illness, and it has the potential to be creating issues for those who have not experienced mental illness symptoms previously. While there is no clear-cut treatment or a one size fit all approach, strength training has demonstrated some very positive outcomes in the symptom management of a variety of mental health issues.
Want to make the most of your physical and mental health through resistance training? Get in touch with the expert team at Absolute and fill your backpack with books, squat your child, step ups on the garden ledge, grab those barbells, dumbbells and bands if you have them and start lifting. You will dramatically improve your physical health, and it certainly looks to have great affect on your psychological health too!
Written by Exercise Scientist, Head Performance Coach & Co-founder David Smith
Please note, these are the views and research pertaining to how strength training relates to mental health and are not a replacement to speaking to a professional. If you are experiencing challenges within your own life, please reach out to someone close to you and a professional. There are some excellent resources listed below for Australian residents.
- beyondblue.org.au or 1300 22 4636
- lifeline.org.au or 13 11 14
- blackdoginstitute.org.au or
- healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-helplines for many more
- Garber, C.E., et al. 2011. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: Guidance for prescribing exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(7), 1334-1349.
- O’Connor, P.J., Herring, M.P. and Carvalho, A. (2010). Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(5), 377-396.
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Strong Brain Image source: https://drhoffman.com/article/6-powerful-ways-to-improve-brain-health/
Question Mark Image Source: https://www.stockvault.net/photo/226769/question-marks-and-man-showing-uncertain-or-unsure
Kynurenine conversion image source: https://www.foundmyfitness.com/episodes/exercise-depression?fbclid=IwAR1_o6sYLQrnVHv8Z150HUwqAb9rkgP9ZdJz-ca3qqrjD7LhZwlu_iiGkpo