Can lifting weights combat depression?


We are all, by nature, emotional creatures. My passion is lifting weights and training my clients how to maximise their performance.

Muscle is so much more than just shape and aesthetics. Muscle is the body’s biggest storage site of glycogen, the form in which we store glucose, so the health benefits linked to maintaining muscle can extend to assisting in decreasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. More muscle means more insulin receptor sites, which can help maintain a healthier level of insulin sensitivity. This can further contribute to better long-term weight management and health, contributing to a reduction in the risk of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as cancer, CVD or CHD.

Muscle and mood

It is well established that exercise and diet can impact on mood, while in turn our emotions can have a big impact on our enthusiasm to exercise, as well as driving emotional eating.

Depression is a more serious problem and one that is on the rise. In the case of America, according to a report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association:

  • US diagnoses of major depression have risen by 33% since 2013.
  • Women are diagnosed with major depression at higher rates than men (6% vs 3%).
  • People diagnosed with major depression are nearly 30% less healthy on average than those not diagnosed, translating into nearly 10 years of healthy life lost for both men and women.
  • Sufferers of major depression are likely to also suffer from other health conditions, with 85% also having one or more additional serious chronic health conditions; nearly 30% have four or more other conditions.

So, it is a big deal that in a review of studies published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers say that resistance training can help treat depression. This is even more significant as it’s the first systematic analysis of top-quality studies that assess the effects of resistance training on depression. It’s also fascinating that this report coincides with Italian research search showing that weight-bearing exercise for our legs sends signals to the brain that are vital to produce healthy neural cells.

Weight training to treat depression

The researchers found that resistance training consistently reduced the symptoms of depression; what’s more, this was the case whether an individual was formally depressed at the start of the study or not.

Now if the idea of trying weight-training for the first time fills you with fear, to help encourage this as an alternative method of dealing with depression, the amount of weight training did not seem to matter. Attendance twice a week seems to deliver the same mental uplift as five times a week, whether there were lots of reps or just a few. Bearing in mind the higher rate of depression amongst women from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report, it is also encouraging that mental health impacts were similar, too, for men and women as well as for younger lifters or people who were middle-aged or elderly.

And the load didn’t matter either! Researchers found increased strength after the experiment did not correlate with less depression. What mattered was completing workouts that worked for the individuals. And another new Italian study may help to explain why.

Squatting: as important for our brains and nervous system as our legs

New Italian research shows that weight-bearing exercise for our legs sends signals to the brain that are vital to produce healthy neural cells. This study fundamentally alters brain and nervous system medicine, supporting the notion that people who are unable to do load-bearing exercises not only lose muscle mass, but their body chemistry is altered at the cellular level and their nervous system is adversely impacted.

The study found that in a group of mice with limited physical activity the number of neural stem cells decreased by 70 percent compared to a control group which were allowed to roam. Furthermore, specialised cells that support and insulate nerve cells didn’t fully mature when exercise was severely reduced.

The research highlighted that weight-bearing exercise using the legs sends signals to the brain that are vital for the production of healthy neural cells, essential for the brain and nervous system. Without such exercise the body finds it more difficult to produce new nerve cells — part of the foundation that allows us to handle stress and adapt to challenge in our lives.

The research highlights one of the fundamental defining aspects of all animals: we are designed to move. People are meant to be active, with this research emphasising that the use of our leg muscles, within an environment determined by gravity and resistance, has an impact beyond our physical wellbeing. Rather neurological health is not a one-way street, with the brain simply sending instructions to muscles; the brain needs the workout as much as the muscles.

Weight-training for mental and physical wellbeing

Often emotional eating can be the result of depression, but for anyone looking for an additional solution to help with depression weight-training provides a drug free alternative. Why not find a work-out buddy for mutual support and sign-up to an ‘exercise miracle cure’ – and ladies, this means you too!

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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