By: Nic Joyce
Lifting weights has obvious benefits – it can build and tone muscle, burn fat, increase strength and even boost your metabolism. But the beauty of weight training is more than skin-deep. As more research is done into the wellness benefits of weight training, we're discovering how powerful it is as a mental health tool.
The science of weight training and mental wellness
Plenty is known about the impact of cardio and endurance training on emotional wellness (runner's high, anyone?), but it's not as well known that weight training also links with positive mental wellbeing.
Recent research has uncovered overwhelming evidence for weight training's impact on mental health, confidence, and self-esteem. One 2014 paper, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that these anxiety-relieving effects were so widespread, they "support for the use of resistance exercise in the clinical management of anxiety". (1)
12 ways weight training helps your mental health
Anxiety can range from short-term worry to general anxiety disorder (GAD) and other clinical forms of anxiety. And they can all have a big impact on your everyday life. Lifting weights can have a really positive effect on anxiety for men and women of all ages and exercise backgrounds. Experts know that it can improve sleep quality and quantity, improve quality of life, and reduce the clinical severity of anxiety. Sounds like a win/win to us! (2)
Studies have shown that lifting weights at home or in the gym can significantly reduce depressive symptoms in adults. That means you won't just feel better (although that's impressive enough!), you'll actually see a reduction in symptoms of depression. The results are most significant for people with mild to moderate depression. (3)
Can you tap into the mental health benefits of weight training if you don't suffer with anxiety or depression? Absolutely! There's plenty of evidence to show that lifting weights improves your mood and brain power regardless of your starting point.
Lifting weights can improve your cognitive performance – which basically means how well your brain works. Experts think it's probably to do with the mathematical and repetitive nature of training with weights which stimulates the neurochemistry of the brain's attentional system.
This could result in improved memory, more creativity, better productivity, sharper focus, or more clarity of thought. All great benefits for when you get back to work or study after your workout!
Offset cognitive decline
Your older self will thank you for lifting weights, because studies show that resistance training can actually delay age-related decline in memory, focus, and decision-making. The aptly-named SMART (Study of Mental and Resistance Training) study from 2016 showed that resistance training plus traditional brain training improved mental performance for up to 18 months afterwards. (4)
You know that invincible feeling you get after doing a hard workout? You can build on that through weight training to develop a permanently increased sense of self-confidence. There are a few reasons why weight training is so good for self-esteem. Firstly, you'll end up visibly altering the appearance of your body. But you'll also have the powerful knowledge that every gain you get in the gym is from your own hard work. That's empowering! Turns out that working on physical strength actually gets you plenty of mental strength too!
Better body image
We've mentioned the confidence you get from visibly sculpting your body with weights. Lifting weights can also lead to huge improvements in body image in both men and women. And in a time where we feel more seen and judged than ever before, we think that's a big reason to love lifting weights!
Encourages positive self-talk
There's something about lifting heavy weights that makes you feel like a superhero. Start training with dumbbell sets or barbell sets and you'll begin to use more positive self-talk. Weight training has a magical way of making you look at your body differently. Get ready to start seeing yourself as strong, powerful, and capable.
Increases connection with yourself
Training with dumbbells and barbells creates a tangible connection between your body and brain, putting you in touch with yourself in a uniquely personal way. You execute the training with your body, and the outcome of the training is your body, too. Lifting weights sets off a feedback loop of proprioception and physical awareness that will leave you with a deep appreciation for your body.
Boosts happy hormones
All exercise has the power to increase the so-called happy hormones dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. But evidence suggests lifting heavy weights is particularly good at boosting natural levels of dopamine (the feel good hormone associated with learning, memory, and motor system function) and endorphins (the body's natural pain reliever).
Clears brain fog
Lifting weights sets off a cascade of neurochemicals that can drive away stress and help you focus, clearing brain fog and helping you get on with the rest of your day. A great reason to invest in some home gym equipment and get a quick workout in at lunchtime!
Education for your brain
Picking up weights is a gym workout for your grey matter, too. Strength training exposes your brain to short periods of mental toughness, so you develop resilience when things seem difficult. Once you've squatted your one rep max, you'll feel capable of anything! And this self-belief will translate over to work, study, and other challenges in life.
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