Most people think of weight training as a way to gain strength, endurance, or bigger muscles. A new study, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, shows that weight training brings significant mental benefits as well. It can help treat and even prevent depression.
Previous research has shown that aerobic exercise, such as running or fast walking, can ease the symptoms of depression. But no large-scale study has been done to see if weight lifting will have the same effect. In the current study, the authors looked at all research that studied depression and weight training, and they synthesized the results for their overall conclusion.
How the depression study was done
The researchers identified 33 high quality studies. The total number of participants was 1877. The average age was 52 and 67% were women. All the studies were “randomized and controlled”, meaning each study randomly split their participants into two equal groups. One group was assigned to weight training (average 4-month program), and the other group did not do weight training. Mental status and signs of depression were measured at the beginning and end of each study.
Once a week enough
The women and men who participated in the weight training showed significantly decreased depression scores at the end of the study, compared with those who did not add the new exercise. And, interestingly, it did not matter how many times per week they went to the gym, or how much time they spent there, or how much weight they lifted. Most of the people who weight trained improved if they at least showed up at the gym once a week and tried to lift some weights.
Some of the people in the weight training group were supervised by trainers, and these people did slightly better than the unsupervised group, but all exercisers improved. And those who were not clinically depressed at the beginning of the study seemed to be somewhat protected from future depression.
Why weight training works
The researchers believe that the strain placed on the muscles somehow improved the balance of the exercisers’ neurochemicals. The exact mechanism though will need to be worked out in future research.
Other depression treatments expensive
The current treatments for depression include psychotherapy and medications. Both are often expensive, and for some people, unavailable. So the researchers were happy that weight training can be an alternative treatment for mild to moderate depression.
What you can do
This research gives another reason to consider weight training. If you are depressed (and even if you are seeing or therapist or taking medication), or you think you are on the verge of depression, consider this research. If you can’t get to the gym, you can work out at home with weights or elastic bands. And if you hate this type of exercise, remember that activities like fast walking or biking will probably help boost your mood as well. If you can do it, a combination of both aerobic and weight training is ideal!
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