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Strength training: the missing piece in fitness that also helps fight depression

Posted on by Benjamin R. Snell, MD

 

You are probably familiar with the health benefits of regular walking or engaging in any type of aerobic activity. Conversations about the number of steps people log each day have become so common that the importance of aerobic exercise has filtered into our collective subconscious. Interestingly, the same doesn’t seem to hold true for strength training. New research that connects muscle-strengthening activities with not only physical, but also mental health means it’s time to broaden the conversation.

Strength training and disease prevention

For many years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that along with aerobic activity, adults do some type of strength training twice weekly to combat muscle loss. These sessions should include all major muscle groups—legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. Muscle mass decreases with age, putting you at higher risk for diabetes (skeletal muscle uses glucose), as well as falls and other injuries.

Strength training and staving off depression

You may have noticed that going for a walk, run, or bike ride can help you feel happier. There is strong evidence that exercise can prevent and treat depression. This includes weight training. A 2018 study released in JAMA Psychiatry validates the connection.

The study was a meta-analysis, meaning researchers actually looked at 33 studies on depression in the context of weight training. All were randomized controlled trials. In other words, some people did strengthening activities and others did not. Two thousand men and women of various ages were tested for depression before and after the trials.

Across all studies, weight training benefitted mood. People who were depressed before the study showed improvement. Those not depressed were less likely to become depressed than people who did not do weight training. The number of work-outs or repetitions, or whether people gained muscle strength made no difference. Simply completing the work-out helped combat depression.

Getting started

It’s clear that strength training is a great way to improve both your physical and mental health. But what does “strength training” actually mean? While you might associate weight lifting with tank top clad men and women grunting as they push up as much weight as possible, you don’t have to join a gym or even block out additional time in your already busy week. You can gain benefits with a minimal investment in time, and your work-out can take many forms.

Lifting weights with machines or free weights is very appropriate and beneficial. Try lifting household items like canned goods if you don’t want to buy weights. There are also options for resistance exercise without weights:

  • Push-ups: try variations on your knees or standing and pushing against the wall, if needed
  • Squats: going from a sitting position to standing which can literally be done using a chair
  • Sit-ups: holding your feet in the air for a few seconds while lying down
  • Yoga: includes many elements of strengthening, as do popular exercise routines

Finally, if you’ve already carved time for daily exercise, muscle-strengthening activities can be added in. Consider stopping along your run to do some push-ups on the ground, pausing on your walk to go from sitting to standing on a park bench 10 times, or even curling (lifting up) your bicycle with your arms along your bike route.

Whatever works best for you is sure to benefit your physical and mental health. The important thing: just do it!

 | Family Medicine Twin Rose - Columbia

Benjamin R. Snell, MD, is a family physician with Lancaster General Health Physicians Family Medicine - Twin Rose. Education: Undergraduate–Concordia College; Medical School–Georgetown University School of Medicine; Residency–Lancaster General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program.

 
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