by Sarah Hughes
When my marriage broke down last year, people had lots of advice on coping mechanisms. Spend loads of time with friends, talk it out, journal, go for long walks by the sea, and have a no-strings fling with an outrageously hot man. All great pieces of advice, and ones I will undoubtedly pass on to other women who find themselves in a similar situation.
But when the going got tough, I found I needed something more to protect my fragile mental health. At my lowest ebb, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication by the doctor… and while I have plenty of friends who swear by their life-changing benefits, they definitely weren’t for me. After three days of heart palpitations, zero sleep, cold sweats and generally just feeling more anxious than I had been before I started taking them, I asked the doctor if I could stop. While they’re life savers for lots of people, I decided I wanted to explore some different options.
Around this time I came across a girl on Instagram who credited lifting weights with changing her life. She’d suffered for years with poor mental health and insisted she’d ‘cured’ herself care of some dumbbells and a weights bar. As a regular and committed exerciser myself I was intrigued and decided to check out the science…
What I read was pretty convincing and encouraged me to ditch some of my cardio in favour of a four-day-per-week progressive weights program. I’m six months in now; so let me tell you a bit about what the boffins say, and how it has worked in practice for me.
Strength training boosts your mood
It’s well known that exercise is great for our mental health, but less well known that strength training in particular can drastically improve our mood and increase feelings of contentment, happiness and pride. A 2018 study released in JAMA Psychology looked at an overview of 33 studies examining the link between strength training and depression. Across all studies, weight training benefitted mood. People who were depressed before the study showed improvement. Those not depressed were less likely to become depressed than people who did not do weight training. The number of workouts or repetitions, or whether people gained muscle strength made no difference. Simply completing the workout helped combat depression.
For me, the act of just committing to a progressive program which I knew was going to challenge me, where I had to set goals and stick to a routine, was a mood booster in itself. And every time I managed to perform one extra rep or go up by a kilogram, I felt an instant lift which set me in good stead for the day ahead.
Lifting weights makes you more mindful
There’s something about picking up a loaded barbell and placing it on your shoulders which makes you more fine-tuned to the mind-body connection than other forms of exercise. Perhaps it’s because there’s a level of risk that comes with using heavy weights and we need to monitor how our body is responding to the load.
Research also shows that regular weight training, with its focus on technique and form, helps us become more focused both in and out of class. Just as when we place the bar on our shoulders and begin to squat, thinking only of the present moment; over time this mental focus will spill over into other areas of our lives allowing us to be more ‘in the moment’.
This one really rings true for me; the mornings where I get myself out of bed and push myself through a challenging strength session tend to lead to me being way more productive and centred throughout the day.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression decrease post-workout
Exercise of any kind releases endorphins, those lovely feel-good chemicals that provide the “I did it! Check me out!” buzz after a class or a gym session. Regular exercise helps the body produce more serotonin and dopamine, just as antidepressant medication does.
In particular, though, strength training has also been shown to lower your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, which can only be a good thing, right? Prior to starting to take my strength training more seriously, I had been a big fan of HIIT and regularly dragged myself out to do sprint training on my nearest beach. It turns out those types of high-intensity explosive training, whilst great for weight loss and metabolism boosts, can lead to an increase in cortisol levels. Now for most people wouldn’t be a problem… but for someone in the middle of a very tricky divorce whose stress levels were already sky-high; they were not the best forms of exercise. Strength training has helped me find my zen in a way that sprinting did not.
Weightlifting improves brain function
As I mentioned earlier; lifting weights definitely has helped me feel sharper and more mentally engaged; but what’s the reason for this? Well, it turns out that during strength training our body produces high levels of myokines, which are hormones that support brain function. It explains why people who have been regular exercisers tend to have stronger cognitive skills as they age, and why weight-bearing exercise is increasingly shown to be a protective factor against diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Strength training tops up your self-esteem
Anyone who has ever got into weight training on a regular basis will know what I mean when I say it just kind of makes you feel… badass. You know? Where a HIIT or crazy cardio class might make you feel euphoric, high as a kite and slightly sick, weight lifting tends to make you feel invincible. There’s something about feeling physically strong which makes me feel mentally strong too. Like I’m more resilient and can take on whatever life throws at me.
Again, scientific research bears this out. Studies time and again show that lifting weights leads to increased self-esteem, better body image and higher levels of emotional resilience. Specifically, studies on women suggest that the reason for these benefits is that with strength training, the focus on aesthetics is removed. The goal, unlike in most other forms of exercise, is not weight loss or becoming thinner. Instead, it is to become stronger, resulting in increased levels of pride and accomplishment.
So there you have it. Five ways that lifting weights can improve your mental health. While it can be no replacement for medication for those who are struggling with diagnosed mental health problems such as clinical depression, it can most definitely be a key tool in your mental health First Aid kit. If you want to embark on an exercise program which makes you feel empowered and ready to withstand life’s curve balls, I’d urge you to give weight training a try. At first, it may feel tough, challenging, or too hard even. But in the words of one of my favourite women, the podcaster Glennon Doyle; we can do hard things.