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The Mental Health Benefits Of Strength Training

Lessons from inside the weight room that make my everyday life better.

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Can lifting weights make you happier and stronger and even wiser?
Source: Courtesy: StockPhoto LTD.

Last month, The New York Times published an article on the benefits of weightlifting for preventing and decreasing depression. The article presented data gathered from over 30 different studies that researchers analyzed. Their findings showed clearly that consistent resistance training, whether heavy or light, anywhere from two to five days per week, helped men and women, young and old alike, to stave off depression and decrease its symptoms. Additionally, weight training was reported to make participants feel immediately better after completing a workout. The article noted that research on the psychological benefits of cardiovascular training, like running and cycling, have long been recommended by the medical community to curb symptoms of many mental illnesses, but an analysis like this—of how weight training affects a mental health condition—is big news.

This article caught my attention because over the past year I’ve spent a significant amount of time weight training, 60-75 minutes, three days a week. In reading the article, I was essentially the choir to which it was preaching. Even though I’ve never been diagnosed or treated for chronic depression, during difficult periods in my life I’ve experienced many of its telltale symptoms, such as insomnia, loss of interest in hobbies and socializing, feeling a sense of worthlessness and general fatigue. The variety of reasons weightlifting would combat these symptoms of depression are readily apparent to me now, but my reasons are not rooted in statistics or studies.

Even though the data referenced in the article shows quite clearly a link exists between weight training and decreased signs of depression, there are no details about why exactly this is the case. Even the article’s author, Gretchen Reynolds, points out that “this kind of review cannot tell . . . how strength training might be influencing mental health.” Data can say a great deal about a great many things, but data doesn’t muse or ruminate in its free time, something I do most of the time.

As a recent convert to the benefits of a steady weightlifting routine, I’d like to offer up some realizations I’ve had while pumping iron. I can’t claim any of these are an antidote to depression, but I can say from firsthand experience that they have brought peace of mind, an overall sense of self-confidence and some other valuable lessons. The more I’ve practiced being mindful about my time at the gym, the more I’ve started to apply the principles below to my life outside of it.

Stronger Muscles Make Daily Tasks Easier
Moving boxes, changing out the water cooler, going up stairs, squatting down to search for that matching shoe at the back of the closet: these all seem like small actions, but stronger muscles have given me the ability to do the day-to-day physical activity of life with fewer aches and pains. When the physical symptoms of depression can make even getting out of bed feel like an obstacle, I suspect increasing the body’s physical capacity is a valuable tool to keep basic functioning as easy and pain free as possible.

Let Go With Care
I used to assume the important part of lifting weights was the first step: the ability to pick something up. After all, gravity does most of the work on the way down, right? Nope. Good form throughout an entire repetition is the key to proper performance, especially when I’m adding 10 to 20 more pounds to an exercise. Any time a muscle group is under a new level of stress, it’s critical to be just as focused when I put that weight down as when I picked it up in order for my muscles to get the full benefits of the movement. I’ve been thinking about this idea in relation to situations that feel heavy to the heart or the mind, like the end of a stressful job or a difficult relationship. In the past, when I’ve been exhausted or overwhelmed by something in my life, I’ve made the mistake of casting it aside thoughtlessly because I was done with it. This has rarely served me well. But when I’ve taken the time and effort to end something with kindness, class, and respect, it generally pays off.

The Value of Productive Rest
When I decided to start weight training, I’d hit a major wall achieving a fitness goal. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do pull-ups and chin-ups, so I joined an independent gym near my house where I brought my frustrations to a certified personal trainer. In addition to helping with my form and overall routine, my trainer started forcing me to wait 60 to 90 seconds between sets. This might not seem like much time, but when I’d been taking 20-30 seconds on my own, it seemed like an eternity at first. Fast forward six months and I’m still notorious for my impatience at the gym, but I’ve learned to pause and let my body regroup before jumping into the next exercise and it’s made a world of difference. I’ve started to take these kinds of short pauses in other areas of my life instead of rushing through my to-do list as rapidly as possible. I’ve realized that productivity and results emerge from finding the right combination of rest and work.

Just Take A Deep Breath
All that fuss about the value of proper breathing never made a significant difference in my years of playing team sports, running and cycling. Weight training changed all of that. Never had I found direct proof of the serious power in breathing until I put a barbell on my shoulders with giant metal plates on either side and tried to squat down to a 90-degree angle. I couldn’t do it. That is, until my trainer told me to take a deep breath on the way down and exhale as I pressed back up. Suddenly, I could feel myself lifting higher until I reached a full stand and completed the rep. Nothing had changed except for my breathing. This has happened on countless occasions while I’ve been training. Outside of my workouts, it turns out that taking a deep breath has a similar effect when I’m under pressure or feeling burdened or anxious. In my own experience, using deep breaths as a source of power makes speaking up, calming down and keeping my cool all easier when something is difficult.

To Build Strong Muscles, You Must Break Them
The main point of strength training is to increase the amount of weight or the number of repetitions of a particular weight your muscles can handle, or both. How this process takes place in the body offers a pretty strong (pardon the pun) metaphor for overcoming obstacles, sadness and pain. To make a muscle stronger, it needs to become injured. It’s only through the process of repairing damaged muscle fibers that growth takes place. When I think of many of the hardest moments in my life, and how much they hurt, and how damaged I felt, I look back now and see how much emotional strength I gained as a result. After all, the heart is a muscle too.

Over a decade ago, while training to reach a different fitness goal (run a marathon), one of my fellow teammates shared that if she was hurting, struggling to finish a long run, she would remember advice that her drama teacher gave in her acting class: do not think about pain as bad, think about pain as interesting; pay attention to it and use it. That advice has stuck with me all these years, not just because it was so wise, but because it was so unexpected. Good running advice from an acting coach. In the same way, it turns out that weight training has been a source of wisdom about my mental health, another unexpected and welcome surprise.

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