Why people with depression should lift weights

If you struggle with depression, your best therapy may be to hit the gym and pump some iron. 

While the physical benefits of strength training are widely known, there are plenty of psychological benefits to reap too. A Harvard Medical School study found that that weight lifting could help alleviate the symptoms of clinical depression. 

The tried and true Harvard study from the 1990s found that the heavier the weight a person used, the more depression improved. A similar study from Duke University found that depressed participants who weight trained for four months, four times per week for 40 minutes overcame their depression without medication. The Duke researchers found that for every 50 minutes of exercise each week, the rate of depression decreased by half. 

Scientific research has proven time and again that weight lifting is about more than just improving your looks. Weight lifting contributes to a more restful sleep, boosts energy levels and slows the aging process. Over time and with consistent effort, this can lead to an overall elevated mood.

There are a number of possible explanations for why weight lifting can help improve depression, according to the National Institutes of Health.  One hypothesis points to the rise in core body temperature following exercise which affects the brain stem to create feelings of relaxation and reduce muscular tension. Moreover, exercise like strength training releases endorphins, which trigger positive feelings and an overall sense of well-being. Likewise, exercise floods the brain with dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that are typically diminished in depressed patients. Other researchers have suggested the possibility that strength training acts as a coping mechanism to distract depression sufferers from their anxious and worrisome thoughts.

Finally, some researchers believe that the boost in confidence that strength training provides can increase feelings of self-efficacy. Depressed patients often feel hopeless to affect positive outcomes in their lives and have a decreased ability to cope with the symptoms of their depression leading to a negative self-image. A few studies have explored the potential that resistance training can provide a mastery experience. Paired with the social interaction exercise provides, it can be the catalyst to change a depressed person's outlook. 

Always check with your doctor and mental health provider before beginning a new exercise program. A personal trainer can help with motivation and to provide an appropriate exercise program based on existing fitness level and to monitor progress and make adjustments accordingly. 

Brian Maher is the owner of Philly Personal Training, a Philadelphia-based studio offering 1-on-1 personal training, physical therapy, and nutrition counseling. Philly Personal Training is the only personal training studio or gym in Philadelphia that requires its personal trainers to possess a college degree in an exercise-related field, as opposed to a basic certification.


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