Strength Training Can Relieve Depression

strength training can relieve depression

Story at-a-glance -

  • A meta-analysis of 33 trials involving nearly 2,000 people showed that strength training led to a significant reduction in depressive symptoms
  • The greatest improvements were seen among people with symptoms of mild to moderate depression, as opposed to those without depression, which suggests strength training may be most effective for people with greater depressive symptoms
  • While strength training may not provide an all-out cure for depression, it may improve depressive symptoms as well as antidepressants and behavioral therapies
  • Strength training is a simple, accessible and side effect-free intervention that could help drive down rising rates of depression and improve quality of life

By Dr. Mercola

Resistance exercise training, commonly referred to as weight training or strength training, is often viewed as an activity aimed at building large muscles. While it certainly does build muscle mass and strength, its benefits don't end there, as strength training offers bodywide benefits from your heart to your brain. In fact, recent research published in JAMA Psychiatry revealed it's even beneficial for your mood and may help to alleviate symptoms of depression.1

A meta-analysis of 33 trials involving nearly 2,000 people showed that strength training led to a significant reduction in depressive symptoms, and this held true regardless of the participant's health status, improvements in strength or how much strength training they completed.

According to the study's lead author, Brett Gordon, a postgraduate researcher in the department of physical education and sports sciences at the University of Limerick in Ireland, the greatest improvements were seen among people with symptoms of mild to moderate depression, as opposed to those without depression, which suggests strength training may be most effective for people with greater depressive symptoms.2

Strength Training May Be as Effective as Antidepressants

While strength training may not provide an all-out cure for depression, Gordon noted in an email to Time that it may improve depressive symptoms as well as antidepressants and behavioral therapies.3 Many different strength training programs turned out to be beneficial, so Gordon recommended strength training for two days a week, with eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 strength-training exercises, to boost mental health, which are the guidelines suggested by the American College of Sports Medicine.4

The World Health Organization's (WHO) physical activity guidelines for adults 18 to 64 also recommends at least two days of strength-based exercises each week.5 Past research has also highlighted strength training's psychological benefits, including a study on stroke survivors, which found improvements in strength are associated with a reduction in levels of depression.6 Yet another review revealed impressive mental health benefits of strength training in adults, including:7

  • Reductions in anxiety symptoms in healthy adults
  • Improvements in cognition among older adults
  • Improvements in sleep quality among older adults with depression
  • Reductions in symptoms of depression among people diagnosed with depression
  • Improvements in self-esteem

Further, in a study of older depressed adults, 80 percent experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after taking up strength training for 10 weeks, such that researchers concluded, "PRT [progressive resistance training] is an effective antidepressant in depressed elders, while also improving strength, morale and quality of life."8

In yet another study of older adults with depression, those who took part in high-intensity strength training three days a week for eight weeks experienced a 50 percent reduction in depressive symptoms,9 whereas separate research showed strength training exercise reduced depressive symptoms in older Hispanic/Latino adults as well (endurance, balance and flexibility exercises were also beneficial for mood).10

What Makes Exercise so Good for Your Brain and Mood?

The featured study in JAMA Psychiatry revealed that both strength training and aerobic exercise appear to be effective for depression. As for why such activities are so good for your brain and mood, it could be related to increased blood flow to your brain or the release of mood-boosting chemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine and dopamine, helping to buffer some of the effects of stress.11

It could also be that exercise improves people's perceptions of their quality of life and sense of coherence — or how meaningful and manageable their life is. People who are depressed tend to have both poorer quality of life and weaker sense of coherence than nondepressed individuals, and both of these measures were found to improve after study participants attended resistance training twice a week for three months.12

Exercise also leads to the creation of new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm13 — similar to the way anti-anxiety drugs work, except that the mood-boosting benefits of exercise occur both immediately after a workout and continue on in the long term.

What's more, anandamide levels are known to increase during and following exercise. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter and endocannabinoid produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression. Strength training also improves sleep quality,14 a critical factor since insomnia may double your risk of becoming depressed.15

Then there's a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), levels of which tend to be critically low in people with depression. Exercise initially stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5, which in turn triggers the production of BDNF.

BDNF, in turn, helps preserve existing brain cells and activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, and effectively makes your brain grow larger. However, researchers are finding that there's a strong link between physical activity, depression and BDNF. As reported in the journal Neural Plasticity:16

"Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a neurotrophin that is vital to the survival, growth, and maintenance of neurons in key brain circuits involved in emotional and cognitive function. Convergent evidence indicates that neuroplastic mechanisms involving BDNF are deleteriously altered in major depressive disorder (MDD) and animal models of stress …

[S]tress-induced depressive pathology contributes to altered BDNF level and function in persons with MDD and, thereby, disruptions in neuroplasticity at the regional and circuit level. Conversely, effective therapeutics that mitigate depressive-related symptoms (e.g., … physical activity) optimize BDNF in key brain regions, promote neuronal health and recovery of function in MDD-related circuits, and enhance pharmacotherapeutic response."

Many Types of Exercise — Even One Hour a Week — Benefit Depression

Strength training is a definite bonus for your mood, but it's only one type of physical activity that's good for mental health. Ideally, you'll want to incorporate a variety of types, including high-intensity interval training, strength training and flexibility work, such as yoga or stretching. Fortunately, each has unique benefits for your mind and body. Even a minimal amount of exercise may be enough to combat depression in some people — as minimal as one hour a week.

A large study involved nearly 34,000 adults who were healthy, with no symptoms of common mental disorders, at the start of the study. The participants were followed for 11 years, during which time it was revealed that people who engaged in regular leisure time exercise for one hour a week were less likely to become depressed. On the flip side, those who didn't exercise were 44 percent more likely to become depressed compared to those who did so for at least one to two hours a week.17

"The majority of this protective effect occurred at low levels of exercise and was observed regardless of intensity," the researchers said, adding that, "assuming the relationship is causal, 12 percent of future cases of depression could have been prevented if all participants had engaged in at least one hour of physical activity each week."18

Further, in 2013 a meta-analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that exercise is moderately more effective than a control intervention, which in some cases was pharmaceuticals, for reducing symptoms of depression.19 Separate research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that aerobic exercise "at a dose consistent with public health recommendations" is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.20

As for mind-body exercise, Iyengar yoga, which focuses on detail and precise alignment of posture combined with deep breathing, reduces symptoms of depression in those who are not taking medication or who have been taking the same medication for at least three months.21

The bottom line is virtually all types of physical activity appear to be great for your mood and may even facilitate healing from depression. If you're currently sedentary, adding even a small amount of activity to your routine may be enough for you to experience a noticeable mental change, and you can gradually increase the amount over time.

Strength Training Is Crucial for Optimal Health

As far as strength training is concerned, it sometimes gets overshadowed by aerobic-type exercises, but rest assured it's equally, if not more, important for optimal health. In a large study comparing mortality outcomes using different types of exercises, researchers discovered those who incorporated strength training experienced a 23 percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 31 percent reduction in cancer-related death.22

Researchers also found that simple body weight exercises that may be performed at home or in any setting were as beneficial to your health as those done at the gym using weight equipment. This means that virtually anyone can enjoy the benefits of strength training — there's no special equipment or gym memberships necessary. In the U.S., only just over half of adults meet physical activity guidelines for aerobic exercise, but when strength-training activities are added in, only 22 percent make the cut.23

In short, most Americans are not doing enough (or any) strength training workouts. Meanwhile, rates of depression have risen by a significant 33 percent since 2013, according to a report by health insurance company BCBS, and this jumps to 47 percent among millennials and adolescent boys and a striking 65 percent for adolescent girls.24 Strength training is a simple, accessible and side effect-free intervention that could help to drive these rates down and improve countless people's quality of life.

One of the great things about strength training is that simple exercises you do at home with your own body weight are all you need to enjoy the benefits of a strength-based program. Mountain climbers, burpees and countless variations of push ups, pullups and squats are some of the hardest bodyweight exercises you'll find, but you can weave them into even the busiest of days.

Please keep in mind that physical activity should include not just "exercise" but also plenty of non-exercise daily movements, such that you're in motion more so than not (except while you're sleeping). Non-exercise movement is a foundational piece of optimal physical and mental health — perhaps even more so than a regimented fitness routine, but ideally you should strive to do them both. If you're new to strength training, there are many options to choose from.

Below is just a sampling for you to explore, and the more varieties you try, the less likely you are to get bored (and the more comprehensive workouts you'll receive). Consistency is key, however, especially if you're struggling with depression, so enlist a buddy to keep you on track or consider working with a personal trainer for motivation as well as to learn the correct form and technique for the types of strength training of interest to you.

Body-weight exercises

Body-weight exercises, which include push ups, planks and squats, are convenient and require no special equipment, location or schedule

Hand weights

Hand weights are inexpensive and portable, and you can easily fit in a few sets of bicep curls and tricep presses while you watch TV or do other sedentary activities

Kettlebells

A kettlebell enables ballistic movements and swinging motions not possible with traditional weights; they can help you develop power in your glutes, hips and legs, as well as stability and strength for your arms, back, shoulders and wrists

Medicine balls (exercise balls)

Medicine balls, which vary in size and weight, can be thrown, caught, lifted and swung, requiring you to use a number of different muscle groups to maneuver them

Resistance machines at your fitness center or gym

If you have access to a fitness center or gym, you may want to experiment with some good-quality resistance equipment because it will allow you to focus your mind on the effort versus the mechanics of each movement

Rope or rock-wall climbing

Climbing — a staple exercise of combat fitness and military training for millennia — targets your abs, arms, back, hands and shoulders, helping you increase agility and gain coordination

Strength classes at your fitness center or gym

Fitness centers and gyms offer a variety of strength-training classes, such as BOSU ball, Forza, Pilates, Smart Bells, Urban Rebounding, water-based exercise and yoga, and you may want to try a few of them to determine the best fit