Depression is a prevalent and serious mental illness that affects a significant number of people worldwide. However, many individuals are reluctant to acknowledge it or believe that it will resolve itself over time. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, can have a negative impact on one’s emotions, thoughts, and actions. It often leads to persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities. In addition to the emotional and mental toll, depression can also take a toll on one’s finances. The cost of psychotherapy sessions and medications, combined with a decline in productivity and focus at work, can be a double blow. Furthermore, psychotherapy and medication may not guarantee a complete resolution of depression. These treatments are typically aimed at providing quick relief for individuals with mild to moderate depressive disorders. People dealing with depression are also more susceptible to chronic health issues such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and hypertension. Additionally, individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder may experience a reduced life expectancy. Depression often leads to a decrease in physical activity, which can have a snowball effect and worsen overall health and well-being. Engaging in regular physical exercise can help improve mood and physical condition.
Physical exercise can be an effective and affordable method of coping with depression. Joining a gym can provide motivation and accountability for sticking to a training routine. While one may enter the gym feeling down, the physical exertion and release of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin can leave them feeling on top of the world.
A 2018 meta-analysis involving 455 subjects found that aerobic exercise done at a moderate intensity for an average of 45 minutes, three times per week for nearly nine weeks, had a significantly positive overall antidepressant effect. This meta-analysis, which included 11 studies and 13 comparisons, demonstrated the antidepressant effects of consistent physical training. However, the focus of this article is to explore whether weight training can also alleviate depression.
When battling depression, strength training may be the last thing on one’s mind. In fact, individuals with clinically diagnosed depression are often less physically active than those who are mentally healthy. However, engaging in physical activity can be incredibly beneficial when dealing with depression. Exercise not only helps in managing depression but also helps to alleviate anxiety. A 2018 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined 33 clinical trials investigating the effects of resistance exercise on depression. This meta-analysis, which involved a total of 1,877 participants, found that resistance exercise led to improvements in depressive symptoms.
The participants in these studies had various physical or mental illnesses, with some individuals having depression as their primary diagnosis and others having it as a secondary diagnosis following illness, injury, obesity, or old age. The duration of the training programs ranged from six to 52 weeks, with an average duration of 16 weeks. The frequency of training sessions ranged from two to seven days per week, with most programs including three weekly sessions.
Regardless of the frequency, duration, intensity, or volume of the training programs, each group showed improvement in depression markers by the end of their training program. Interestingly, even when there were no noticeable changes in participants’ physical appearance, their mental health improved. The researchers also found that subjects who participated in trainer-led workouts experienced greater improvements in mental health compared to those who trained on their own. Additionally, shorter training sessions were found to be more beneficial in relieving depression. However, it is unclear whether these shorter workouts were more intense or had less volume. Individuals with more severe depression symptoms tended to achieve better results from strength training and showed greater improvement compared to those with milder symptoms. It is important to note that individuals with more severe symptoms were clinically diagnosed, while those with milder cases self-reported their symptoms.
Like other forms of exercise, resistance training promotes the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the brain’s hippocampus region, which is responsible for mood regulation. In individuals with depression, the hippocampus region can shrink to up to 25 percent of its normal size. The release of BDNF helps restore the hippocampus to its full size and improves communication between cells. While the results of this meta-analysis are promising, further research is needed to fully understand the anti-depressant mechanisms of weight training. Additionally, conducting studies with controlled environments and larger subject pools can help establish specific weight training protocols for individuals dealing with depression.
If you are interested in starting strength training to relieve depression, here is a step-by-step guide to getting started:
1. Find the right sport: There are various forms of weight training, such as bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit. Choose a sport that resonates with you and aligns with your training objectives.
2. Choose a program: Select a training program that suits your lifestyle and current condition. Beginners should avoid high-volume programs that involve training six days a week, as this can lead to exhaustion.
3. Seek guidance: If you are new to strength training, consider seeking guidance from a qualified trainer who can help you develop a safe and effective program.
4. Start slowly: Begin with lighter weights and gradually increase the intensity and volume of your workouts as you become more comfortable and experienced.
5. Stay consistent: Consistency is key when it comes to strength training. Aim to train regularly and make it a part of your routine.
6. Listen to your body: Pay attention to how your body feels during and after workouts. If you experience any pain or discomfort, adjust your training accordingly or consult a healthcare professional.
Remember, strength training is just one tool in managing depression. It is important to seek professional help and support from mental health professionals if you are struggling with depression.