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There is a lot of evidence to show that aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. However, little is known about the potential mental health benefits of resistance training. That is, until recently.

Two large reviews of over forty resistance training interventions among various groups of people have shown that lifting weights can also lift your mood. In the reviews, resistance training was defined as exercise interventions designed to improve muscular strength, so this included lifting weights in the gym, but also exercise using your body weight and resistance bands. It was shown that people who took part in the resistance training interventions had substantially reduced depressive and anxiety symptoms compared to those who received no intervention. Interestingly, the benefits were seen across all population groups (including people with and without diagnosed anxiety and depression, people with and without various illnesses, young and old adults, and men and women) and when doing any amount of training – more was not necessarily better, though it also was not worse. The benefits were also comparable to those that have been reported for aerobic exercise.

The exercise probably has both physiological and psychological consequences, says Brett Gordon, a graduate student at the University of Limerick in Ireland, who led the reviews. The weight training could be changing aspects of the brain, including the levels of various neurochemicals that influence moods, he says.
It is thought that the neurobiological effects of exercise may be similar to those of popular medications used to treat depression and anxiety.

“Expectancy could also be at work,” he says. People expect the workouts to make them feel more cheerful, and they do. It’s impossible to blind people about whether they are lifting weights or not, he points out, so some of the psychological benefits might be the result of a biological placebo effect, which nonetheless produces real benefits.

Interestingly, the importance of maintaining high levels of strength in order to prevent the development of depression and anxiety in the first place is also increasingly being understood. This body of evidence has grown substantially over the last two years and appears to show that people who are stronger are less likely to develop these mental health problems, much like people who are aerobically fit are also less likely to develop mental health problems.

All this said the research does not indicate that resistance training is better for combating depression than other kinds of exercise. Nor do the results suggest that exercise should replace traditional therapies. But, as a whole, the data do show that visiting the gym and lifting weights a few times a week is an effective way to reduce and prevent against the development of, anxiety and depression.

Read more articles in our Cognitive Function and Exercise series




  1.   Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. Association of Efficacy of resistance exercise training with depressive symptoms: a meta-analysis and meta-regression analysis of randomised clinical trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018;75(6):566-76.
  2.   Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Lyons M, Herring MP. The effects of resistance exercise training on anxiety: a meta-analysis and meta-regression analysis of randomized controlled trials. Sports Medicine. 2017;47(12):2521-32.
  3.   McDowell CP, Gordon BR, Herring MP. Sex-related differences in the association between grip strength and depression: results from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing. Experimental Gerontology. 2018;104:147-52.
  4.   Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Lyons M, Herring MP. Associations between grip strength and generalized anxiety disorder in older adults: results from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (In Review) Journal of Affective Disorders
  5.   Ashdown-Franks G, Stubbs B, Koyanagi A, Schuch F, Firth J, Veronese N, Vancampfort D. Handgrip strength and depression among 34,129 adults aged 50 years and older in six low-and middle-income countries. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2019;243:448-54.
6.   Åberg MA, Waern M, Nyberg J, Pedersen NL, Bergh Y, Åberg ND, Nilsson M, Kuhn HG, Toren K. Cardiovascular fitness in males at age 18 and risk of serious depression in adulthood: Swedish prospective population-based study. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2012;201(5):352-9.

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