Review links weight/resistance training to reduced depression symptoms and risk
Depression is the most common mood disorder in the U.S., affecting nearly one out of 10 adults.
Most patients experience mild-to-moderate symptoms, and just under one-third suffer severe symptoms.
Antidepressant drugs can be effective but have significant downsides, including weight gain, loss of libido, and a rise in suicide risk.
Since untreated depression can be debilitating and potentially deadly, anyone feeling significantly depressed for an extended period should seek medical advice.
Solid evidence suggests that it makes sense for people diagnosed with mild-to moderate depression to try psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, and exercise before taking antidepressant drugs.
And it makes sense to consider clinically validated dietary supplements, which are often omitted from standard medical advice.
The best options include St. John’s Wort, seafood-source omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA, but especially EPA), and the serotonin precursor known as 5-HTP.
Most antidepressant drugs — such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil — are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. As their name implies, these drugs inhibit reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Although it’s been thought SSRIs work by maintaining higher blood levels of serotonin — which is a key but not the only mood regulating neurotransmitter — that idea has lost ground.
Another theory is that SSRIs ease depression by serving as “neurotrophic” agents: molecules that promote new connections between brain cells — an effect that omega-3s appear to exert to a greater and more consistent extent: see Omega-3s May Rival Antidepressant Drugs.
Exercise and mood: An overview
There’s ample evidence that aerobic, cardiorespiratory exercise such as running, cycling, and swimming can ease and help prevent mild to moderate depression.
And emerging evidence suggests that strength training may also help prevent and/or treat depression.
The terms “strength training” and “resistance training” both refer to routines that work your muscles. Popular methods include:
- Weight machines
- Exercise bands and tubes
- Free weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc.
- Exercises that exploit your body weight, such as squats, pull-ups, and pushups
A new meta-analysis from European research centers examined the effects of strength training on symptoms of depression — and the authors came to encouraging conclusions.
Evidence review finds strength training effective vs. depression
The recently published meta-analysis comes from scientists at Ireland’s University of Limerick, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, and Iowa State University.
They analyzed data from 33 clinical trials that involve more than 1,800 adults (Gordon BR et al. 2018).
Overall, their analysis showed that weightlifting and other strength/resistance exercises significantly reduced depressive symptoms.
Importantly, the results showed that resistance training improved symptoms, regardless of a participant’s overall health status, how much resistance training they did, and of whether they enjoyed any actual strength gains.
Prof. Jacob Meyer of Iowa State University explained why people diagnosed with any degree of depression should try exercise: “For general feelings of depression and the beginning phases of major depression, antidepressants and medications may not be very effective.”
And as he said, “Understanding that resistance training appears to have similar benefits to aerobic exercise may help those wading through daunting traditional medication treatment options.”
Strength training may help with anxiety as well
A study published last year by the same international research team found that resistance exercises can help to lessen anxiety.
The team analyzed 16 previous studies involving over 900 adults who were randomly assigned to do resistance training or no exercise (Gordon BR et al. 2017).
The results linked strength-training workouts with fewer anxiety symptoms — regardless of whether participants had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
The study’s lead author — Brett Gordon from Ireland’s University of Limerick — underlined the importance of their findings for the Reuters news agency:
“RET (resistance exercise training) significantly reduced anxiety in both healthy participants and those with a physical or mental illness, and the effect size of these reductions is comparable to that of frontline treatments such as medication and psychotherapy. RET is a low-cost behavior with minimal risk and can be an effective tool to reduce anxiety for healthy and ill alike.”
Cardio health strongly prevents depression
As we said, previous research found that cardio/aerobic workouts may help to prevent depression.
And a recent meta-analysis ratified those findings. Its authors summarized the results of three earlier “longitudinal” studies that followed more than one million participants over time (Schuch FB et al. 2016).
To help ensure an accurate picture, the research team only analyzed studies that included participants’ results on cardiorespiratory fitness tests — as opposed to relying on self-reports about their levels of fitness and normal exercise routines.
In addition, they restricted their analysis to studies that used widely accepted tests of mental health and mood that were administered at the start and end of each study, and at least one year beyond the research period.
And the results of the meta-analysis were clear: For both men and women, poor cardiorespiratory fitness was strongly linked to a higher risk of developing depression.
After segmenting the volunteers by overall fitness, the bottom third (based on cardio fitness) were 75% more likely to be diagnosed with depression, compared with the one-third of participants who scored the highest on cardiorespiratory fitness tests.
Finally, the one-third of participants who fell into the middle of the cardiorespiratory fitness range were nearly 25% more likely to develop depression than those who were the most fit (the top third).
Michigan study found that exercise may make you happier
Another recent study examined whether physical activity might promote happiness and contentment (Chen W, Zhang Z. 2018).
Associate Prof. Weiyun Chen at the University of Michigan led an analysis of 23 prior studies in which researchers had measured participants’ happiness and physical activity.
These included 15 “observational” studies that compared people’s reported activity levels to their mental health, and eight controlled clinical studies in which the participants were assigned to either an exercise group or to a "no exercise" control group.
All 15 observational studies detected some benefit from exercise, while the eight clinical trials produced less consistently positive results.
The observational studies found that — compared to people who got no exercise — the likelihood of being happy averaged 20% higher among people who were a little active, it averaged 29% higher among people who were “sufficiently” active, and was an average of 52% percent higher among people who were very active.
Three of the studies focused on happiness levels and physical activity in older adults. One found a positive relationship between exercise and happiness, while another directly linked the total number of minutes of exercise to happiness levels.
In addition, it appears that there is a threshold between minutes of exercise and happiness – the greatest results were found in the range of 150-300 minutes a week or more.
Chen summarize their findings: “Our findings suggest the physical activity frequency and volume are essential factors in the relationship between physical activity and happiness. More importantly, even a small change of physical activity makes a difference in happiness.”
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