Lifting Weights Can Reduce Depression, Study Finds



We all know that exercising is a great way to improve mood but a new scientific review shows that that there is one specific type of exercise that can ward off depression and whisk away the gloom more than the others: Strength training.

According to the findings, lifting weights, no matter how often or seldom you do it, can decrease the feeling of melancholy and the risk of depression.

Depression and Lifting Weights

Exercise in general is a great way to stay happy, and a large body of research points towards the mental health benefits of physical activity. 

In 2016, a large-scale review of studies involving more than a million participants found out that people who were physically active had a much lower risk of developing depression.

It also concluded that people who had been diagnosed with clinical depression before starting to exercise improved mental health considerably after going to the gym regularly. But the review heavily focused on the cardiovascular exercise like running and jogging – but what about resistance training?

Until recently, there hasn’t been much research done on the mental health benefits of strength training. In 2017, an analysis of past studies found a link between resistance exercises and anxiety. But depression isn’t the same as anxiety.

Last month, the same group of researchers who discovered that resistance training can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, focused their attention on depression to determine if lifting weights can also lift away the clouds of gloominess. A review that was published in JAMA Psychiatry, looked at the entire body of research conducted on strength training in the past.

Only the best randomized experiments with control groups – where some of the participants were asked to exercise while others were not – were chosen for the review. The researchers weren’t only interested in finding a link between depression and strength training, they also wanted to determine how other factors like age, gender and frequency of exercise affected the relationship between physical and mental health.

Weighing in the Factors

After collecting studies with over one thousand participants, researchers began sifting through the data to find any meaningful results. They discovered that no matter what the participant’s mental state was at the beginning of the experiment, almost all of them showed fewer symptoms of depression and gloominess after lifting weights consistently.

People who were diagnosed with depression at the start of the research were more likely to reap the benefits of resistance training. 

Those who showed signs of normal mental health at the beginning, were less likely to develop depression later on in their lives in comparison to those who did not lift weights.

What intrigued researchers the most was the fact that the effects on reducing depression were the same across all participants, no matter how much they trained throughout the week.

A person who did resistance training only twice a week reaped the same benefits as the one who did it five times a week. The results were similar across gender and age and the amount of repetitions performed for each exercise didn’t seem to create a difference in the mental health impacts.

Researchers said that it didn’t matter if the person was a novice or a seasoned lifter, almost anyone who showed up to the gym and finished their exercise benefited from reduced risk of depression.

Strength Training Better than Cardio?

There were a few studies where one group of participants was asked to perform a different form of exercise altogether such as running or walking, which made it difficult to compare the mental health effects across various workouts. Despite a small sample size of the experiments, researchers were able to conclude that both, cardiovascular and strength exercises had the same effect on depression.

Although the review concludes that lifting weights can have a positive effect on mental health, it does not tell us how this specific exercise actively reduces depression. Brett Gordon, the lead author of the review, said that training may affect the same part of the brain that controls mood and changes the neurochemical balance to make the lifter feel better.

However, the review does not suggest that resistance training is any way a better than prescription drugs in controlling depression, nor is it superior to other forms of exercises such as yoga and cardiovascular training. But the study does encourage people to step into the gym a few times a week to reap its physiological and psychological benefits.