Depression and anxiety are highly common mental health conditions, with the most common treatments including medication and therapy, but waiting lists for treatment can span up to a year, with more people looking for alternative methods to ease symptoms in the meantime.
It’s well known that exercise has significant benefits on mental health. Exercise positively impacts levels of serotonin, a chemical that helps to regulate mood. But it is only recently that studies are beginning to show the connection of the extra benefits that resistance training can have. Those who train to be physically stronger have been shown to be less anxious and more confident and satisfied with themselves than those who did not. Specific mental health studies (O’Connor 2010,) found improved self-esteem and reduction in symptoms of depression among patients with diagnosed depression. Findings suggested that it may be even more beneficial in those who showed more severe depressive symptoms. It has also been found that, regardless of health status, resistance training provides a significant mood boost, irrespective of any physical strength gains. (Gordon, 2018).
Mental health struggles appear to be incredibly prevalent in the powerlifting community. I asked a coach about this once and he said it was probably a combination of things – one being that in order to stick to the training, to really put yourself through the physical process that you have to in order to be a successful competitive lifter, requires a certain sort of mind set; goal orientated, perfectionist tendencies, self-critical, and some would even go as far as to bring a masochistic approach to training. These are all personality traits that can also lend themselves towards certain mental illnesses. The other, more significant, is that lifting some seriously heavy stuff can be very therapeutic, makes you feel accomplished, and is time away from certain thoughts or external stresses and anxieties of life – something anyone would want to try, especially if you had a mental health problem!
Now I’m not saying everyone should become a powerlifter. Mental health benefits were actually further evident for people performing low-to-moderate intensity strength training. The first year I discovered weight training was certainly a revelation to me and one of the best years of my life – the realisation that food was not the enemy and actually fuelled muscular strength (who knew?), watching my body adapting to weights I previously couldn’t fathom, that being a size 8 suddenly wasn’t that important, and that picking up heavy stuff was exceptionally rewarding and really fun!
One of the best things about strength training is that you can see improvements almost every week, the work you put in really reflects what you get out of it (especially at novice level), and coming from a sport like golf I can assure you that isn’t completely true of every pastime. So I assure you – if you are looking for a type of exercise that can help you with your mental health, give lifting a go!