Weightlifting and Mental Health

In our last post, I wrote about the physical benefits of weightlifting: enhanced athletic performance, improved mobility and coordination, and positive changes to body composition/physique. Today, however, I want to go deeper--and more personal. I want to talk about the mental health benefits of weightlifting.

Weightlifting doesn’t just change what you see in the mirror. The journey has a transformative effect on your psychology. There’s plenty of evidence on how exercise can reduce and prevent symptoms of depression and anxiety. A recent meta-analysis in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that resistance training (including weight-training) can serve as an alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms. The authors found that performing resistance training two or more days a week resulted in significant reductions in depressive symptoms (sadness, helplessness, irritability, worry, changes in appetite, loss of interest in activities, poor sleep, trouble concentrating, and energy loss), regardless of overall health status, volume of training, and strength gains.

However, the study did not offer clear reasoning as to why strength training reduces depressive symptoms. As someone who has benefited greatly from weightlifting, I was curious to answer this question.

For the majority of my life, I have struggled with persistent depressive disorder and generalized anxiety. From ages 12-23, I was on and off various anti-depression and anxiety medications and met with a therapist on a routine basis. Some things had a marginal effect--other things had no effect at all. Like a dark cloud, it hovered, ever-persistent. There were days where I felt okay--but many more where I did not.

Then one day I walked over to a platform, loaded a bar with 25kg, and tried snatching. My wrist went numb. I frustratingly dropped the bar and walked away. But the next day I came back. And I kept coming back. And years later I can’t imagine my life without it. Through the grind of training I felt my capacity to endure discomfort start to grow. Through the fluidity of the movements, I felt my focus sharpen and my confidence rise. My depressive symptoms began to slowly fade away. The anxiety began to crumble. I could finally celebrate real, sustainable improvements in my mental health. 

Why? This is a question I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. 

Foremost, I often felt lost in life. Weightlifting acted as a compass, providing purpose and direction. 

For me, depression manifested as hopelessness. I isolated myself, spending hours in bed ruminating and furthering the cycle of self-pity and helplessness. Weightlifting gave me purpose. It pushed me to get up in the morning. It motivated me to take care of myself, if for no other reason than to improve my performance. And it gave me a deep sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. 

Weightlifting has a special ability to switch my conscious brain off. As if some sort of barrier exists, when I walk in the gym, everything else stays outside. No one can reach me. Nothing can touch me. I’m locked in--focused on myself and only myself.

Nothing else matters except for performing and improving my lifts. Challenges at work, financial stress, a busy schedule--it all fades in the seconds before approaching the barbell. The concentration that weightlifting demands is captivating. My mind responds by giving it the full attention it deserves.

It did not begin that way. In my first year of training, learning to lock in was a struggle. I tried various strategies before developing the system I use today--listening to calming music, deep breathing, and visualization. Now, my brain is wired to switch into training mode the second I step into my car to head to the gym. It’s an instant sense of relief that I am rarely offered any other time in my life.

But in this spirit of the post--it doesn’t end there. ‘Training mode’ transcends weightlifting. It’s a generalizable approach to life. And it’s something I utilize throughout my life.

I’ve taken on better habits to care for myself. I’ve pushed myself to get to bed earlier so I can be fresh for training. I’ve taken on a strict nutrition regimen to nourish my body, and give myself proper energy that the lifts demand. I’ve been introduced to meditation and visualization practices to improve my mindset for training and competition. And I’ve cut out things that were negatively affecting my ability to recover, like having too many drinks or staying out late.

It’s given me a new sense of how I feel about myself as a person and shown me that I can do anything I set my mind to do. Training often feels unbearable. But in a broad sense, it’s systematic growth that requires systematic recovery. Fundamentally, therein lies the generalizability to life. 

For me, depression was hopelessness. A sense that I would not overcome the sadness looming over me. So why did weightlifting help? Because fundamentally depression is chaos. Imposing a framework, using a systematic approach, gives order to the chaos. The growth in the capacity to endure, for me, results in the ability to rise above and move forward towards a happier, healthier self.