It reduces depressive symptoms such as low mood and feelings of worthlessness

By Catherine Orda | Photo by Victor Freitas /Unsplash

The relationship between exercise and mental health has always been seen in a positive light with its manifestations observable through varying forms (runner’s high, for instance) and degrees.

But what exactly is it about exercise that brings about these emotional and mental benefits? Generally, physical activity triggers the release of chemicals such as endorphins and proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors. The latter helps improve brain function, which in turn makes a person feel better, mood-wise.

Resistance Training: A Cure for Depression?

This relationship is at the core of the latest review of studies about the mental benefits of exercise. The review found that the exercise that has the most positive impact on mental health is resistance training (RET), which can actually reduce depressive symptoms. RET, which includes exercises such as weightlifting and strength training, has been likened by the authors of the study to a cure for depression.

To examine the effects of resistance training on symptoms of depression, the clinical trials of nearly 2,000 people were observed. The findings report a substantial improvement in depressive symptoms, which included low mood, a loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness (regardless of age, sex, and specific exercise routines).

One of the researchers Brett Gordon says: “Interestingly, larger improvements were found among adults with depressive symptoms indicative of mild-to-moderate depression compared to adults without such scores, suggesting RET may be particularly effective for those with greater depressive symptoms.”

Why RET?

The findings of the review are made even more compelling by the fact that RET seems to work as well as antidepressants and behavioral therapies—both frontline treatments for depression. But since the review is based on past research, it’s difficult to tell why exactly RET works so well or why it has this effect on depressive symptoms.

There are some studies, however, that have suggested some explanations—one of which says that because RET increases blood flow to the brain, it can change its [the brain’s] structure and function, create new brain cells, and trigger a wave of mood-enhancing chemicals like endorphins. Simply put, it’s an exercise that deeply improves brain function, which, in turn, can address depressive symptoms.

Yes, exercise almost always is a good thing and studies like this have proven its mental health benefits, but lifting weights or running will not instantly wipe out depressive symptoms

Another thing the review could not ascertain was the best RET exercise for mental health. Since the improvements could be traced to a wide range of strength-training programs, Gordon says he can’t point to a single best exercise routine for mental health. However, there was some evidence suggesting that an ideal routine is one that is supervised and doesn’t take more than 45 minutes.

People can also follow The American College of Sports Medicine’s recommended routine: Doing strength training at least two days per week by performing eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 different strength-building exercises each time.

Getting Started

But of course mental health is a deeply complex thing, its causes and effects deeply varied and nuanced—so needless to say, all this new information should be taken with caution and complemented by more research.

Yes, exercise almost always is a good thing and studies like this have proven its mental health benefits, but lifting weights or running will not instantly wipe out depressive symptoms. There’s also the question of getting started: It goes without saying that people struggling with depression will find it hard to start (and keep on) exercising.

Nonetheless, Gordon says this study adds weight to the argument that resistance training can be a powerful tool for improving mental health. Depression as it relates to motivation and exercise is a complicated thing in and of itself, but more information on the matter is always welcome.