While strength training may not provide an all-out cure for depression, Gordon noted in an email to Time that it may improve depressive symptoms as well as antidepressants and behavioral therapies.3 Many different strength training programs turned out to be beneficial, so Gordon recommended strength training for two days a week, with eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 strength-training exercises, to boost mental health, which are the guidelines suggested by the American College of Sports Medicine.4
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) physical activity guidelines for adults 18 to 64 also recommends at least two days of strength-based exercises each week.5 Past research has also highlighted strength training’s psychological benefits, including a study on stroke survivors, which found improvements in strength are associated with a reduction in levels of depression.6 Yet another review revealed impressive mental health benefits of strength training in adults, including:7
Reductions in anxiety symptoms in healthy adults
Improvements in cognition among older adults
Improvements in sleep quality among older adults with depression
Reductions in symptoms of depression among people diagnosed with depression
Improvements in self-esteem
Further, in a study of older depressed adults, 80 percent experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after taking up strength training for 10 weeks, such that researchers concluded, “PRT [progressive resistance training] is an effective antidepressant in depressed elders, while also improving strength, morale and quality of life.”8
In yet another study of older adults with depression, those who took part in high-intensity strength training three days a week for eight weeks experienced a 50 percent reduction in depressive symptoms,9 whereas separate research showed strength training exercise reduced depressive symptoms in older Hispanic/Latino adults as well (endurance, balance and flexibility exercises were also beneficial for mood).10
What Makes Exercise so Good for Your Brain and Mood?
The featured study in JAMA Psychiatry revealed that both strength training and aerobic exercise appear to be effective for depression. As for why such activities are so good for your brain and mood, it could be related to increased blood flow to your brain or the release of mood-boosting chemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine and dopamine, helping to buffer some of the effects of stress.11
It could also be that exercise improves people’s perceptions of their quality of life and sense of coherence — or how meaningful and manageable their life is. People who are depressed tend to have both poorer quality of life and weaker sense of coherence than nondepressed individuals, and both of these measures were found to improve after study participants attended resistance training twice a week for three months.12
Exercise also leads to the creation of new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm13 — similar to the way anti-anxiety drugs work, except that the mood-boosting benefits of exercise occur both immediately after a workout and continue on in the long term.
What’s more, anandamide levels are known to increase during and following exercise. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter and endocannabinoid produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression. Strength training also improves sleep quality,14 a critical factor since insomnia may double your risk of becoming depressed.15
Then there’s a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), levels of which tend to be critically low in people with depression. Exercise initially stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5, which in turn triggers the production of BDNF.
BDNF, in turn, helps preserve existing brain cells and activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, and effectively makes your brain grow larger. However, researchers are finding that there’s a strong link between physical activity, depression and BDNF. As reported in the journal Neural Plasticity:16
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