The link between physical exercise and mental health is a well established one.
But it’s not all about cardio exercise. In fact, quite the contrary.
Exercise in the form of resistance training and weight lifting is an incredibly powerful way to improve mental health.
Weight training not only releases the all-important mood-boosting chemicals, but it also builds resilience, helps you make constant physical improvements, gradual training progression, and can help you achieve regular goals.
Regular weight lifting builds big confidence, self-assurance and there’s an important social side too. Even just a nod and a smile from a fellow gym-goer makes you feel better.
The great thing is that both resistance and strength training makes us feel better over both the short and long term.
Let’s take a closer look at how weight training benefits mental health. Are you also up for a little challenge? I dare you to read this entire blog and not feel like doing exercise at the end!
Drawing the links between weight lifting and mental health
It’s much easier to link lifting weights with a better body than it is to link it to better mental health.
Remember the saying though: healthy body, healthy mind. I’m a huge believer in this.
Mental health is made up of our emotional, psychological and social well-being. The treatment of mental health issues are usually via anti-depressant medication. But exercise can and should play a huge role.
This isn’t just anecdotal, many scientific studies (listed at the end of this article) have shown improvements in mental health issues thanks to exercise.
It does require a little thinking about.
Over time we can see the direct impacts that resistance training (alongside a good diet of course) can have on the body, but we can’t actually see what’s happening with our brain.
Why would 45 minutes of lifting weights create a healthier brain? Why would doing five sets of 20 press ups stimulate a complex chain of chemical interactions within the brain and nervous system?
How does weight lifting impact the brain?
The brain is a complex organ. It makes up about 2% of a human’s body weight, but consumes around 20% of the body’s energy!
It contains billions of nerve cells (neurons) and billions of nerve fibres all joined up by trillions of little connections called synapses. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s the most complex structure known to humans.
Now, we don’t need to know the intricacies of how this all works, but we can get an understanding of what happens in the brain when we pick up a dumbbell, grab a barbell or jump on a hammer strength machine:
- Working against a resistance gets muscle fibres firing which require energy and oxygen
- This elevates the heart rate to push more blood around the body, including up to the brain
- Blood movement around the vessels running throughout the brain increases
- This stimulates the release of brain chemicals, also called neurotransmitters, that give the brain information on how we are feeling – tired, happy, in pain, satisfied etc
- The increased blood movement also enhances the connectivity of brain areas, which stimulates new brain cell development.
Weight training and endorphins
Many people will have heard of endorphins.
Those wonderful little chemicals that make us feel good?
Yes, but like most things when you dig a little deeper, there’s a bit more to it than this.
Endorphins are a group of hormones secreted by the brain and nervous system that many associate with happy moods and good feelings. Sorry to burst the weekly magazines favourite go-to line, but there is actually little direct evidence that endorphins are the sole hormones responsible for the brain-boosting impacts of physical exercise.
Weight training actually stimulates a number of chemicals throughout the body and brain that lead to these positive mental feelings. The main chemicals include:
- Noradrenaline (the brain version of adrenaline)
What is clear though that regular weight training over time means more of these positive chemicals are swilling around our body and brain – this is the reason why exercise can have such a positive impact on our mental health.
It’s even been shown that resistance exercise can stimulate parts of the brain that aren’t responsive during depressed periods, leading to greater feelings of well-being. How good is that?
As mentioned in the section above, physical exercise can help the brain to grow new cells and connections. This is called enhancing neuroplasticity.
Better brain plasticity is fantastic for long-term mental health as it strengthens links between brain areas, which have been shown to help with memory, decision making and planning amongst other things.
When you lift weights, you’re not just exercising your muscles or heart, you’re actually, albeit probably indirectly, exercising your brain as well.
On the flip side, neuroplasticity can go the other way and deteriorate. Addiction and prolonged stress are two major causes of decreased brain plasticity.
Many of the symptoms of brain degenerative diseases are also paired with a loss in neuroplasticity. Resistance training may well play an important role in later-life benefits too.
Is lifting weights really that good for your mental health and brain?
If you’re still not sure about all of this, just think about the opposite scenario.
Not taking part in resistance training means you won’t be stimulating your muscles, your heart and elevating blood circulation. It means you won’t be benefitting from any of the positives above including that complex release of positive chemicals we all crave.
Weight lifting technique and the mental benefits
The bonus with lifting weights is in the motion itself.
Running and other aerobic exercise can be a little monotonous and almost become subconscious. Your mind is still free to think about whatever it likes.
Weight lifting moves, such as squats, deadlifts, bent over row and other multi-joint (also called compounds) lifts need careful thought. You need to focus on the technique to do them properly.
The movement and the intent behind weight lifting means you are naturally in the ‘present moment’ – it’s a prime example. This is fantastic for those with wandering minds.
A lot of the science behind exercise and its benefits on mental health focus on aerobic training. This is probably because it’s much easier to perform and study.
Despite this, strength and resistance training studies have also been linked with improving moods, diminishing negative feelings and depressive symptoms. The links below cover these areas.
Do you feel like lifting some weights? I hope so!
Personally speaking, strength training and weightlifting have provided a huge boost to my own physical and mental health. All the positive associations described above, I have personally felt.
I go to bed looking forward to getting up and hitting the gym. This didn’t come straight away but the benefits of training with weights was clear from the start.
If you’re new to weight training or long-term enthusiast, I hope this blog has shown the clear relationship and benefit between weight lifting and mental benefit.
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References & Further Reading
- Dishman, RK & O’Connor, PJ (2009). Lessons in exercise neurobiology: The case of endorphins.
- Gordon, BR et al. (2018) Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.