How Strength Training Impacts Our Mental Health
Author: Katie Oates, Contributing Wellness Editor
Reviewed by: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
Defining the Role of Strength
In life, it is inevitable that we will encounter pain and obstacles, but every trial along our path has the potential to provide an opportunity to build strength, resilience, and courage. Strength is our X factor; it’s what we learn when we overcome the obstacles we thought we couldn’t. It builds our physical and mental reserves, fortifying us with “health wealth” that we can call upon in times of crisis when our stress is heightened and our normal strategies are threatened.
At Namaste we believe in the deep connection between our bodies and minds. When grouped together, skeletal muscle is the largest organ in the body which is why we should all have tools that help us, build, maintain, and optimize it. The evidence is increasingly clear that strength training is an important tool to improve depressive symptoms, boost self-esteem, and improve cognitive function.
Examining the Evidence
In the last century or so, we’ve become increasingly sedentary, and our modern health problems, mental and physical, reflect our lifestyle. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults 18 and older, roughly 18.1% of the population! Those that suffer from an anxiety disorder are also more likely to suffer from depression and vice versa.
The majority of human emotions are processed by the limbic system of our brain, an area that is highly saturated with opioid receptors. When we exercise, our bodies ramp up the production of endorphins that interact with our opioid receptors stimulating pleasure and reducing our perception of pain. A study done at the University of Georgia on female anxiety patients aged 18-37, found that lifting weights twice a week was a low-risk treatment that reduced worry symptoms among the participants by up to 60 percent. In a larger review, the results of other trials were examined on strength training and its impact on anxiety, that proved when compared to aerobic exercise, strength training had a greater effect on reducing anxiety symptoms in healthy adults. The mental benefits extend beyond the improvement of anxiety and depression; strength training has also been shown to significantly boost self-esteem. Low self-esteem is a risk factor for developing depression, so an improvement in self-esteem is powerful for mood management as well. In over six randomized trials, strength training alone produced an overall boost in self-esteem for younger and older healthy adults, as well as patients with cancer and depression.
In parallel to improving our mental stresses, resistance training keeps our brains sharp and protects against future cognitive decline. Dr. Jordan Metzl, in his book “Workout Prescription: 10, 20, 30 High-Intensity Interval Training Workouts for Every Fitness Level” offers this piece of advice, “Your brain, it turns out, is like a muscle. If you have a sedentary lifestyle that includes other bad habits, your brain tends to shrink, just like a dormant muscle would atrophy.” One study found that even a single session of resistance exercise boosted memory for up to 48 hours! Another key study highlights the role that skeletal muscles play in the prevention of our cognitive decline through the work of myokines, a hormone-like substance that our muscle secretes when our muscles are contracted. Myokines work to protect the area of our brain that is most susceptible to the development of Alzheimer's.
“Your brain, it turns out, is like a muscle. If you have a sedentary lifestyle that includes other bad habits, your brain tends to shrink, just like a dormant muscle would atrophy.” - Dr. Jordan Metzl
Building a Habit of Strength
The evidence is clear: a strength training routine can offer several benefits for our mental health and vitality. If you want to make training a consistent part of your life, learning how to effectively build and maintain habits will give you the best foundation for long-term success. Identify the larger goals in your life that training will help you accomplish while looking beyond the short term results such as losing weight or sculpting the perfect abs. Make your choice identity based - not just what you want in the moment but rather who do you wish to become? Do you wish to become physically and mentally resilient? Confident and worthy? Clear minded and sharp? This is about your journey to becoming the best version of yourself and how you continually want to show up in the world.
Once you’ve been able to build your narrative for making strength a new habit in your life, it’s important that you address potential obstacles. For instance, time is a common obstacle for many of us when it comes to training. We encourage you to re-frame the challenge of time in this way. According to the Mayo Clinic, the health benefits for exercise kick in when we are achieving at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity with strength training for all major muscle groups at least twice a week. If you think about how many waking hours are in a week, assuming you make time for 8 hours of sleep, that equals to 112 hours; you only need around 1.1% - 2.7% of that time to exercise! Thirty minutes of brisk walking on five days per week can help meet baseline public health aerobic exercise recommendations.
Namaste’s CEO and Co-founder Julie Wald offers this advice from her Amazon best selling book Inner Wealth.
“Instead of thinking of movement as a chore, I like to think of movement as a celebration and a gift of the human experience that you get to do daily. Think about the challenges of the day, and the strength, focus, and calm you will receive from incorporating a regular strength routine to help me feel better today, right now.”
A Total Body Routine
To get started, we recommend building a habit of training for at least 10 minutes twice a week and expand on that time as you get stronger. The key is to find a total body program that works for you, focusing on form and consistency. Why total body? Our muscles are designed to work together so that we can complete movements in sync without injury. The workout below emphasizes a total body focus in a simple and buildable time format, allowing you to extend and build on your workouts as you get stronger. While a routine like the below is a great way to start, it’s important to remember that everyone’s bodies are different and certain exercises might need to be adapted to help you overcome imbalances, which is why it’s always a good idea to start a training program with the support of an experienced personal trainer.
Working with a great personal trainer is a powerful tool to continue to evolve throughout the years. Consistent patterns in our life ground and anchor us, but if we become creatures of habit, we can miss out on a lot of potential. A good trainer helps us avoid injury, keeps us consistent, and holds us accountable to our goals.
Nourishing Your Strength
Providing the proper nutrients that support optimal strength is the best way to show our bodies gratitude when undergoing regular training. A whole-food, plant-based, and protein-rich approach is key for maintaining and building muscle. Whole foods improve the quality of your diet and have a higher nutrient density to facilitate interactions in the body for optimal protein absorption. The American Dietetic Association, and Dieticians of Canada, recommends ingesting .7 - 1 g of protein per pound during a training regimen to support muscle synthesis. To enhance your protein intake even further, consume at least 30-45 g of protein per meal immediately (30-60 mins) after you exercise and for up to 24 hours during recovery for optimal muscle growth and repair.
One important thing to note here is that when we talk about protein, we’re not talking about moving to an all carnivore diet. Do NOT deprioritize produce, simply make sure there is enough protein to support muscle synthesis, and when you can, go organic as much as possible. Why organic? Dr. David Sinclair, a leading expert at Harvard in the field of longevity explains the case for going organic in his new book, Lifespan. Organic produce undergoes a higher level of stress during the growing process, triggering a higher concentration of bioactive compounds that have been proven to boost our longevity and fitness.
Deliberately strengthening our bodies prepares us to respond to the stresses of life, enabling us to take action with resolve and focus. As we face these unprecedented times, building strength and resilience is key to helping us to thrive physically and mentally. A wellness partner, such as a professional from the Namaste community, can be your partner in establishing and sustaining a successful strength training program that will serve you now, as well as later, once our current crisis has passed. This preparation will help to build self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of self-efficacy, which are essential, especially now. Think of the investment in strength training as an investment in your ongoing reserve of resourcefulness, resilience, and adaptability.