Photo by Paul Buceta

If getting your sweat on with dumbbells and barbells is your training method of choice, we have good news that goes beyond the body toning benefits. New science suggests weight training also has positive effects when it comes to mental health, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety—and potentially even preventing it. Here’s what we know so far, plus the research-backed strategies for reducing your risks.

Lift to Bust Anxiety  

A 2017 meta-analysis of past studies done on strength training (16 studies in total, involving a total of 922 participants, 68 percent of them female) found that lifting weights can help people feel less anxious and nervous.

However, if you’re intimidated by the weight room, don’t stress: reducing symptoms of anxiety with exercises doesn’t have to mean deadlifting or bench pressing like a powerlifter. In fact, the opposite may be more effective as per one study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, which measured anxiety with specific traits such as feelings of tension and apprehension. The researchers found that high-intensity resistance training was actually less likely to decrease anxiety symptoms. Instead, using low to moderate weights that are lighter than 70 percent of what you can lift for one rep had the greatest effect on anxiety.

Fight Off Depression

But can strength training ease the condition of depression? An important review of research addressing this very question was published earlier this year in JAMA Psychiatry.

The results of this large review found that resistance training consistently reduced the symptoms of depression, and it didn’t matter how much they were lifting or going to the gym. The benefits were the same whether they were going fives times a week or just twice a week, or whether they were doing slow and heavy reps or lots of lighter reps. Furthering this point, one study of 33,000 people over 11 years demonstrated that just 1-2 hours per week was enough to prevent depression.

Short and Sweet

Another takeaway from the large study was to keep workouts short—under 45 minutes. Erin Haugen, Ph.D., LP, CMPC, a sports psychologist based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, agrees. “Leave yourself wanting a little bit more rather than overdoing it,” she says. “And do the type of physical activity you enjoy rather than what you feel you should do. ‘Should’ statements are often prominent with people experiencing depression.”

It’s All Good

The benefits of strength training on mood were seen across all ages too, from college students to middle-aged or elderly. And perhaps most importantly, people didn’t need to see physical improvement to feel less depressed. Previous research from Harvard Medical School suggested that exercise-triggered endorphins may play a role, but strength training offers the additional opportunity of overcoming obstacles in a controlled, predictable environment. This increases perseverance and grit, the traits of mental resilience, which helps you bounce back from difficult experiences.  

As strong women, we know that without health and fitness there is little quality of life, but what this new research seems to drive home is that it’s not about how much weight you can lift at the gym, or how many hours you clock in, or even the gains you make—what really matters is showing up and doing the workout.

Helen Vong
Helen Vong is a Canadian writer and editor in the field of health and fitness. Throughout her career, Helen has specialized in researching and writing about topics ranging from skincare, nutrition and beauty. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including Oxygen, Elevate and Inside Fitness.