We’ve suspected all along that strength training is good for both body and mind. Now it has been proven by a recent study. According to the June 2018 study released in JAMA Psychiatry strength training reduces depression “significantly.” Health status or total volume of weight training had no bearing on how much study participants benefitted.
The recent finding gives us a deal that we can’t refuse. Weight training helps manage our mental health, not to mention the numerous, pre-existing benefits. Over the age of 20 8% of adults report having depression. Based on a population of 327,300,000 more than 27 million Americans suffer from depression, an astounding number. In total, anxiety disorders affect 40 million people. Amidst a mental health crisis, we’re also suffering from a suicide epidemic.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and around 123 people commit suicide daily. The rapid acceleration of the suicide rate (30% in 17 years) should give us pause, especially coming on the heels of this year’s tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. However, we must be careful linking cause and effect as 54% of people who commit suicide aren’t identified with depression. Regardless of risking a causal connection, it’s painfully clear that strength training can help millions of Americans suffering in their lives.
Whether you’re suffering from depression or not, weight training has become affordable, accessible and easy for most to do at home. Although weight training isn’t a cure for depression, it has been found that exercise improves the brain’s blood flow, produces new brain cells and triggers the release of endorphins. The physiological changes roll into a reduction of depressive symptoms, such as: poor mood, feelings of worthlessness and lost interest in activities. The positive benefits cut across health status, sex, age and strength improvements.
Although Harvard Medical School has found that high-intensity exercise such as strength training works as well as drugs prescribed for depression in some cases, a single exercise that works best for improving mental health has not been discovered. Dr. Brett Gordon, one of the authors of the June 2018 JAMA Psychiatry study recommends a basic regimen of strength training twice a week, consisting of 8 to 12 repetitions of 8 to 10 different strength training movements each workout. Some evidence suggests guided workouts under 45 minutes work well.
Past studies have found that aerobic exercise like running, swimming and biking also have a positive impact on mental health. Getting out, being active and moving, in any way appears to be beneficial. Psychology Today notes that “The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise each week.”
As far as the length of the strength training programs studied by Dr. Gordon, the trials averaged about 16 weeks but they varied in duration, from 6 to 52 weeks. The trials frequently consisted of 3 weekly workouts, though other programs ranged from as few as 2 sessions per week, up to 7 workouts per week. However, there’s much we still haven’t figured out regarding a complex biochemical and physiological process, which includes an array of endorphins and neurotransmitters.
Exercise jumpstarts the brain’s production of endorphins, including dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. However, there are 2 lesser known neurochemicals, endocannabinoids and brain-derived neurotrophic factor that exercise activates in our brains. Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters acting as naturally produced versions of cannabis or marijuana. Endocannabinoids help produce the euphoric feelings of “runner’s high” after a workout. Recent studies have discovered that exercise increases endocannabinoid levels in the bloodstream.
Endocannabinoid research has yet to reach more mature stages, however a 2016 study states “At present, there is considerable evidence involving the endocannabinoid system in eliciting potent effects on neurotransmission, neuroendocrine, and inflammatory processes, which are all known to be deranged in depression and chronic pain.” Endocannabinoids are closely linked to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which plays a pivotal role in depression. Another influential player in the brain, closely linked to HPA and endocannabinoids is brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that helps to stimulate nerve growth in the brain and neuroplasticity. Think of it as Miracle-Gro for your brain. Not coincidentally, a study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association connects the dots between exercise, its “effects on neurotransmitters and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis” and increases in BDNF. Our friends over at Barbend make the connection too.
“Also of importance is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps the brain to forge new neural pathways. This literally means it helps you to think of problems in different ways and come up with more creative solutions to issues you’re facing.” Depression severely limits sufferers capacity to devise new approaches to problems and adversity. Their lower levels of BDNF inhibit their neuroplasticity and ability to solve problems creatively.
The researchers at the University of Connecticut sew all the complexity together in a succinct manner and propose future studies demonstrating the interactivity of endocannabinoids, BDNF, neuroplasticity, and depression, stating:
“The proposed studies will also extend these findings to examine BDNF-cannabinoid interactions at excitatory synapses, and explore the functional relevance of these interactions in regulating activity-dependent synaptic plasticity. Knowledge gained from these studies will provide insights into the regulation and interdependence of BDNF and endocannabinoid signaling. New mechanistic insights regarding the interaction between these neuromodulators could provide the basis for novel therapeutic approaches to neurologic and psychiatric disease. Public Health Relevance Neurotrophins and endocannabinoids have been implicated in the pathophysiology of a wide range of disorders, including anxiety, depression, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, and neuropathic pain. The knowledge gained from the proposed studies on interactions between these systems could provide the basis for novel therapeutic strategies for neurologic and psychiatric disease.”
If your head isn’t spinning by now, and you have a decent grasp on the relationship between exercise and depression, by way of endorphins, endocannabinoids and BDNF, then please watch the following video which explains an intricate topic with beautiful simplicity.
After grasping the delicate physiology of exercise on the brain, you now know the potent impact that working out has on your mood, mental health and brain chemistry. Strength training alone does NOT cure depression. However, strength training reduces depression, especially if it's a high-intensity strength program. Together with therapy, and a prescription if necessary it can be a path to a healthier life. Moreover, strength training acts as an integral component of one’s holistic health.
NOTE: The content provided here is intended to be informative in nature, and in no way should be taken as, or substituted for, professional medical advice. Articles and opinions on our blog aren’t purposed for diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of depression and other health problems. If you feel you’re experiencing symptoms or demonstrating signs of depression, please seek the help of a qualified medical professional immediately. If you’re having suicidal thoughts or ideas, there’s help for you available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK.