Strength training doesn’t just make us physically stronger – it can also make us more mentally resilient. For Mental Health Awareness Week, find out how lifting weights could be one of the key weapons in your arsenal.
If there’s one thing we’ve grown increasingly aware of in the past few years it’s our mental health. Never has protecting and boosting our wellbeing been so important, and one way of doing that is strength training.
The link between exercise and mental health has long been established. “Healthy body, healthy mind” is an old adage that still rings true today. For those who don’t enjoy cardio, the good news is that you don’t have to run a 10k to experience a euphoric “runner’s high”– you can get the same endorphin rush from strength training. While it’s important to note that exercise shouldn’t replace professional help for your mental wellbeing, those living with poor mental health and people without diagnosed conditions can both notice improvements in their mood when training.
“There’s something incredibly empowering about noticing that gradual increase in physical strength and it can help with mental and emotional strength and resilience, too – it’s something people can do for themselves and, as they notice the changes in this area, it can make life easier.” Not only will an increase in strength making everyday tasks (carrying groceries, for example) easier, but “the body can become a permanent anchor, reminding you of what you can accomplish when you set your mind to anything, as well as carrying those metaphorical emotional weights with greater ease,” Eve explains.
William Pullen is a London-based psychotherapist and BACP member, author of “Run for your Life” and founder of Dynamic Running Therapy. He tells Stylist that through his work, he has “seen first hand the benefits of movement in general – it is fantastic for stress relief and the sense of getting from one place to another, of getting something done, of using the body, all contribute to an uplift in mood.”
How exactly does strength training help to improve mental health?
Strength training reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety
“Mental health challenges tend to be debilitating and often lead to feelings of powerlessness,” William explains. “Strength training not only makes you feel physically stronger but serves as an alternative, bite-sized and effective route to confidence.”
There’s a difference between feeling low and living with symptoms of chronic poor mental health, but strength training can actually help to alleviate both. A meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials (totalling 1,877 subjects) concluded that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults. More in-depth analysis showed that these mental health benefits were more pronounced for people performing low-to-moderate intensity strength training and that people with mild-to-moderate depression seemed to reap the most benefits.
Meanwhile, a review of seven studies found that moderate-intensity strength training leads to small but significant reductions in symptoms of anxiety. While the people involved in these studies hadn’t been diagnosed with a generalised anxiety disorder, it suggests that lifting weights can help with more everyday feelings of anxiety that so many us have to live with.
“Strong movement is especially good for anxiety as it burns off the excess stress hormones that flood the systems,” Eve explains, going on to say that lifting “is a way of honouring the natural fight-or-flight response in a 2021-appropriate way.” Strength training can be meditative; you’ve got to move mindfully in order to reduce the risk of injury. Plus, breathwork is important not only for exerting power but for re-training the body’s nervous system so that it remembers how to cope under pressure.
“2021 living offers many opportunities for the stress response to be activated. Lifting the weight is a deliberate way to lift the nervous system, while releasing it naturally lowers our stress levels (something we often need more help with) – allowing that deeper exhalation and a stronger sense of relaxation.”
It provides benefits faster than other types of exercise
While all types of movements can get the endorphins going, there’s something special about the short, cyclical nature of strength training. You can elevate your cortisol levels by doing anything strenuous, such as running, power yoga or weights and then enjoy the calm after the storm once you’ve finished your session. However, “strength training specifically offers shorter cycles, so it could be especially beneficial in reminding the nervous system to lift and lower,” says Eve. This helps us to get better at grounding and calming ourselves down in everyday life and managing mental stresses.
William points out, however, that some mental health challenges are strongly correlated with lifestyle habits, “so the benefits may only last as long as the improved health habits last.” Other challenges have to do with self-perception and the choices we make, and “while exercise can help further those changes, it may not be enough in itself. Therapy may be needed.”
Strength training can improve our self-esteem
One of the most important elements of good mental health is having robust self-esteem. The more we see value in who we are and what we do, the more likely it is that we’ll feel happy. If you’re prone to self-doubt, swap the cod-psychology for something that’s been proven to work: strength training. A large meta-analysis of 113 studies found that lifting led to a small increase in self-esteem. That was down to increased body definition leading to better body image and improved belief in what they thought their bodies could do. In other words, lifting is empowering.
Eve encourages her clients to find a type of exercise that they can engage with and says that she especially loves it “when clients tell me about strength training and weight lifting. As the bone health and mental health benefits, it can really increase confidence while improving sleep, supporting trauma recovery and easing stress and anxiety.”
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Strength training creates a much-needed distraction
When you run, you might find yourself thinking about all kinds of things, but when you strength train, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing because distraction can lead to injuries. Your mind is therefore fully engaged in the workout – freeing it of anxieties or thoughts that might be contributing to feeling distress. That forced focus is great both while you’re moving and after, as it helps to build that mental muscle too.
Strength training is energy boosting
You might feel knackered after a strength training session but training can improve your sleep quality. Studies have shown that as little as 20 minutes of exercise a day can help us to drift off into a deeper sleep. Strength training in particular has been found to play a stabilising role when it comes to vital bodily functions such as resting glucose metabolism, blood pressure and metabolic rate. All of these contribute to physical stress reduction and a better quality of sleep. There’s also evidence to suggest that lifting weights can help you to fall asleep faster and stay in a deeper sleep for longer. The better you sleep, the more energy you’ll have while awake – and more energy contributes to better mood.
Social sport is good for us
Whether you lift at a gym or work out at home, there’s a big social element to training that shouldn’t be underestimated. Social interaction and inclusiveness is integral to maintaining good mental health and being a member of a club is a sure-fire way of turning a passing interest into a long-term commitment. In the Strong Women Training Club, you’ll be connected to lots of women exactly like you who are chasing down similar goals, with opportunities to interact with other members and trainers on a regular basis.
Strength training improves brain function
A study by the University of Sydney found that six months of strength training can help to protect areas of the brain from dementia. Participants (all of whom were older and at risk of Alzheimer’s) were randomly allocated to do computerised brain training, strength training or a combination of the two for six months. A year later, researchers found that strength training had led to overall cognitive benefits in the hippocampus part of the brain, which is responsible for memory and learning. The hippocampal subregions in those people who sat at the computer had shrunk by up to 4% over the 18-month period, while there was no shrinkage at all in some areas for those who had done weight lifting. You may not be at risk of dementia at the moment, but it’s worth brain training now to give yourself the best chance later on in life.
If you are struggling with your mental health, it’s worth chatting to your GP or getting in touch with an accredited mental health professional. They’ll be able to help you work out a programme of recovery or coping strategies that may well include lifting weights – as well as being able to assess you for more medical interventions. Check out the mental health charity Mind for further information.
Interested in joining the Strong Women Training Club? Here’s a little taster of what’s to come: over 100 How To videos from your favourite trainers, showing you exactly how to do the most classic strength training exercises. Below is your guide to doing the reverse lunge to knee raise.
Check out the How To library, more articles like this one, training plans and our ever-growing bank of video workouts. Plus, from Saturday 3 April 2021, watch out for a special series of video classes by star fitness influencer Alice Liveing over on the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.