Mental Health Awareness Week: How resistance training can help improve mental wellbeing

Woman holding a barbell

We’ve all heard the advice that physical activity can have a positive influence on mental health. Studies have shown that participation in regular exercise can improve body image, increase self-esteem, and reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine highlights that adults with depression could see a 20-30 per cent reduction in their symptoms by participating in physical activity on a daily basis.

When we think about physical activity, it’s natural that our first assumption might be cardiovascular exercise – for example, running, football, tennis or brisk walking – we may not immediately think of weight lifting as a suitable activity. However, according to a paper published last year in JAMA Psychiatry, resistance training could prove just as beneficial as cardio.

During the study, researchers looked at the results of 33 clinical trials involving 1,877 participants to find out if weight training could have a positive effect on mental wellbeing. The results of the study were conclusive; researchers found that “resistance exercise training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults, regardless of health status”.

Research suggests that resistance training can significantly reduce depressive symptoms

You might ask why this would be the case. According to the authors of the study, more research is needed to determine definitive reasons; but, as Mental Health Awareness Week starts in the UK, it’s clear that resistance training is a good example of an independent method for alleviating or preventing symptoms.

Strong body, stronger mind

Resistance training can be an empowering form of exercise, and should feature regularly in a healthy lifestyle. Not only does weight lifting increase your muscle and bone strength, it’s also been shown to improve brain function in older adults. More importantly though, resistance training can provide a positive boost in self-esteem, self-confidence and body image, arguably great determiners of mental wellbeing, with the latter being the main focus of this year’s awareness week.

Run by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 13-19 May in the UK. Writing ahead of the campaign, Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Foundation, highlights how, for too many of us, poor body image can be a source of distress: “From an early age, we are bombarded with images that define what an ‘ideal body’ looks like,” he writes. “In therapeutic terms, we have internalised a sense of SHOULD when it comes to our bodies. It is as if we each have our own internal GIF on a loop reinforcing what the ideal looks like… All this might not be so serious if it didn’t have profound implications for our mental and physical health.”

Mark’s words are borne out by the figures, according to research conducted by the Mental Health Foundation last year, “30 per cent of all adults have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope”. That’s a truly shocking, but (sadly) unsurprising, number of people.

30 per cent of all adults have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope

While resistance training – and exercise generally – can’t be seen as the magic bullet for mental health challenges, for those that are physically able to participate, being physically active can certainly be used to help alleviate symptoms.

So, how often should you practise resistance training? Writing to Time in 2018, lead researcher of the JAMA report, Brett Gordon, recommended following the guidelines provided by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): twice a week, and between eight to 12 repetitions of eight to 10 different exercises. And for those of you who can’t make it to the gym, the ACSM suggests that these can be accomplished at home using bodyweight or resistance bands.

Realistically, poor body image is a complex area with many potential underlying causes, and focusing on health and fitness may not provide the definitive solution if you’re struggling. However, the research suggests that being physically active can help improve and maintain mental wellbeing, so if running isn’t for you, resistance training could provide a good and accessible alternative.

If you’re suffering with mental health issues, make sure you reach out to someone you can trust, or contact the Samaritans. Samaritans are available by phone 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 116123 for free or email jo@samaritans.org.

Find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week and follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #BeBodyKind and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.

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