Exercise makes us feel great. The rush of endorphins we experience after a run, bike ride, or yoga session is unmatched and, in many cases, addictive. But there’s just something special about lifting weights. That little bit extra. The feeling we get after a good resistance session is hard to explain, but anyone who’s experienced it will recognise it immediately. It’s an untouchable, invincible sensation that can last for hours after a session. So what exactly is it about lifting weights that makes us feel this way? What causes the rush of feel-good chemicals that keeps us coming back for more? And how can we harness it to improve our mental health and wellbeing?
A study conducted by the University of Limerick in 2018 found that strength training can drastically reduce symptoms of depression. Researchers also found that improvements were larger for those who were already showing mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression. “This suggests resistance training may be particularly effective for those with greater depressive symptoms” concluded one of the researchers.
Interestingly, the reductions in depressive symptoms were not caused by a perceived increase in appearance, or even in strength gains. No, it was the act of strength training itself that was causing the improvements in participants' mental health.
Richard Taylor is a renowned fitness and wellbeing expert, with decades of experience in the industry. What was his take on the link between lifting weights and improved mental health?
‘Repeated contraction of a muscle releases things called myokines, which aid skeletal muscle and help bones grow healthier’ he said. ‘But on closer inspection, we can see a network of interconnected systems - skeletal muscle, the skeletal system, the brain – everything is working together’.
It turns out the myokines that are released during strength training greatly support cognitive function. ‘Cognitive function covers everything from memory to mobility, from logic to perspective’. Simply put, our cognitive function is the lens through which we experience the world. If we support our cognitive function, our subjective life experience is a more positive one. We feel elevated and happier. This would explain that unbelievable feeling on the way back from a strength training session when all the lights turn green and the sky is a little bit bluer.
“We live in a hyper-connected society today,” says Richard. ‘We rarely take time to switch off, and this had led to higher levels of stress and anxiety than ever before”. “With the rise of technology and social media, we have become removed from our nature as human beings - we are designed to move, to constantly challenge our bodies, not to be sat at a desk all day”
That’s where resistance training comes in.
Richard says regular strength training can greatly reduce anxiety. ‘In a University of Georgia study, women with generalised anxiety disorder were split into three groups. One group was assigned to a programme of resistance training, one to aerobic exercise, and one was used as a control group. ‘While both exercise groups experienced a significant drop in levels of worry, it was resistance training that came out as the clear winner. ‘And that wasn’t all. The resistance training group, when engaging in resistance training just twice a week, reported an anxiety remission rate equal to antidepressants’.
Yep, you read that right – lifting weights twice a week was as effective at fighting anxiety as prescribed anti-depressants.
Richard believes we need to take a more holistic approach to mental health, and look at the broader picture to understand the causes of – and possible solutions to – poor mental health.
‘When I talk to anyone embarking on the journey of improving their health, I like to encourage them to assess their why’ says Richard. ‘You’ve got to understand the reasons you are doing something to develop a good relationship with yourself. ‘Resistance training is a great chance to develop this understanding’.
A meta-analysis of 113 studies found that strength training shows a strong correlation with an increase in self-esteem. “And it’s not all about looking better, gaining muscle, or slimming down, I think it goes much deeper than that,” says Richard, “Strength training allows us to build up feelings of self-worth and value”.
We are all capable of using resistance training to make huge improvements in our physical and mental health. It’s just about taking the first step. Or as Richard puts it – “Small changes add up to huge results”.
Our physical and mental health are two-branches of the same tree. We can’t have one without the other. So if you are looking to improve your mental health and wellbeing, resistance training is a great place to start!
5 Top Tips for Starting Weight Training
Start light – Don’t walk before you can run. Focus on learning the fundamentals with proper form – trying to lift too much too soon is a surefire way to pick up an injury and stunt your progress
Eat well – They say gains are made in the kitchen. This is the easiest thing to
Ask questions – Do your research, most people at the gym will be happy to help.
You don’t have to go it alone – an exercise buddy can be a priceless addition to your health and fitness journey. The added motivation and accountability etc.
Switch it up – While it is extremely important, resistance training isn’t the be-all and end-all. Including things such as aerobic exercise and mobility work will give you a more balanced (and interesting) fitness programme.