This Type of Exercise May Help Relieve Depression

3 minute read

Strength training is good for your body and your mind, according to a new review of more than 30 previously published studies.

The paper, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that resistance exercise training (RET), such as weightlifting and strength training, is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. It also, of course, comes with physical benefits, like making bones stronger and preventing chronic conditions.

Brett Gordon, the paper’s first author and a postgraduate researcher in the department of physical education and sports sciences at Ireland’s University of Limerick, stops short of calling resistance training a cure for depression, but he says the findings are compelling, especially since it’s accessible, affordable and possible to do at home.

And it seems to work as well as the frontline treatments for depression—antidepressants and behavioral therapies—Gordon says in an email to TIME. Because the study was based on past research, however, it wasn’t possible to tell from this paper exactly why that might be the case, or to prove a definitive cause-and-effect relationship. But other research suggests that by increasing blood flow to the brain, exercise can change the structure and function of the brain, create new brain cells and trigger the release of mood-enhancing chemicals like endorphins.

Gordon and his colleagues analyzed 33 clinical trials—including nearly 2,000 people in totalthat examined the effects of resistance exercise training on symptoms of depression. Across the board, they found that strength training was associated with improvements in depressive symptoms such as low mood, a loss of interest in activities and feelings of worthlessness, regardless of a person’s age, sex, health status, specific exercise routine or improvements in physical strength.

“Interestingly, larger improvements were found among adults with depressive symptoms indicative of mild-to-moderate depression compared to adults without such scores, suggesting RET may be particularly effective for those with greater depressive symptoms,” Gordon says.

Since the researchers saw improvements associated with a wide range of strength-training programs, Gordon says he can’t name a single best exercise regimen for your mental health. (There was, however, some evidence to support the effects of supervised routines shorter than 45 minutes.) He recommends following the guidelines provided by the American College of Sports Medicine: doing strength training at least two days per week by performing eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 different strength-building exercises each time.

While the current review specifically examined resistance training, plenty of evidence suggests that other forms of physical activity, such as aerobic exercise, cardio and yoga, may also improve depressive symptoms. A secondary analysis included in the JAMA paper also found no significant difference in the effects of RET versus aerobic exercise for alleviating depressive symptoms, Gordon says.

Of course, the factors that dictate mental health are complicated. Lifting weights may not be enough to wipe out depressive symptoms entirely, and it can be difficult to find the energy or motivation to start a new exercise regimen if you’re already struggling with depression. Nonetheless, Gordan says the new review adds weight to the argument that resistance training can be a powerful tool for improving mental health.

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