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Wellness 4 Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training

Research shows resistance training plays a powerful role in improving your happiness.

mental health benefits of strength training

A great lifting session sometimes makes you feel like you can conquer the world. Turns out, that feeling isn’t just in your head. There’s new research that explains why resistance training gives you all the good feels. Here are four research-backed mental health benefits of strength training that explain how your lift can positively impact your day and your life. 

Enjoy Your Workouts More

Whether you’re someone who counts down the minutes until you get to work out, or you spend that time dreading an impending sweat session, how much fun you have might come down to the type of exercise you do. A study* out of West Chester University found that participants who performed resistance training reported higher levels of exercise enjoyment when compared with aerobic and yoga training. And research in high-intensity exercise shows similar results, which could be due to the format of typical resistance training or HIIT workouts.

Think of your strength-training session as a series of mini high-fives every time you finish a set. “If you’re lifting heavy weights, you’re pushing yourself repeatedly, and your goals are consistently met potentially through the whole session,” explains Jacob Meyer, PhD, an assistant professor at Iowa State University and expert on the neurobiological effects of exercise on depression. And research shows competence in your workout performance may be key to enjoying your workout sessions, leading to more motivation to come back the next day. 

Manage Anxiety and Stress Better

When the Sunday scaries hit or a busy schedule has you feeling frazzled, lifting weights might provide the relief you seek. Researchers from Iowa State University* found resistance training alone improved ratings of anxiety over a 12-month program and when combined with aerobic training, the participants also showed lower ratings of stress.  A review of the research backed up these findings, showing resistance training improved symptoms of anxiety.

quote re: mental health benefits of strength training. Quote reads: “You’re the one who's choosing to challenge yourself in the workout. That sense of control might be part of why people feel less anxious and less stressed after resistance training.”

Seems counterintuitive, but resistance training puts your body under stress, which better prepares you to face other stressors in your everyday life, explains Meyer. “You’re the one who’s choosing to challenge yourself in the workout. That sense of control might be part of why people feel less anxious and less stressed after resistance training.” Your workouts can also help to build mental resilience so you can navigate the ups and downs of your day with ease. 

Reset Your Mood 

If you can’t seem to shake a negative mindset, shifting your focus to resistance training may help. Researchers from University of Tennessee* found both aerobic and resistance training increased the positive state of mind of the participants. 

“We know resistance training can improve someone’s general positive feelings about themselves and how interested or excited they are to participate in different activities,” notes Meyer. “And we’ve seen when someone is in a negative state, resistance training can bring them closer to that positive spectrum.” 

With resistance training, the only action you’re responsible for is moving and you don’t have other competing demands on your attention, so it may create a space to reset mentally, adds Meyer. And while meditation and mindfulness give you a similar time out from your thoughts, resistance training provides a different task to focus on and offers additional physiological adaptations, like increased strength or improved body composition, that meditation doesn’t offer. 

Relieve Depression Symptoms  

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, resistance training may help you with the day-to-day management of your mental health. In a recent study* performed at University of Limerick and Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that eight weeks of consistent lifting reduced depressive symptoms around the same amount as psychotherapy or medication. In other words, “if someone were to start resistance training or an antidepressant, they would likely end up with the same benefit after the course of that treatment,” says Meyer. 

Improving everyday functioning in your personal, work, or social life in the short term with consistent resistance training may have lasting effects in treatment of mental health disorders, which Meyer says makes strength training a powerful tool in anybody’s toolbox.

The bottomline: Meyer recommends to try to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans–at least two to three sessions of total-body resistance training twice per week accompanied by at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity–to reap the mental health benefits of resistance training. Building up to heavy resistance training with progressive overload may offer further benefits, both to the body and mind.

*It’s not every day that you get to hear about the latest breakthroughs in research well before they are published. These findings are a sneak preview of the latest research presented at the 2022 American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting.

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