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First, I want to make it clear that anxiety and depression can be serious conditions which require medication. I am not a doctor and if your physician advises you to take medication for these or any psychological disorder, I’m not suggesting you alter that course of treatment. I do however believe weight training can be a great addition to whatever else a person does to combat these disorders. And there’s plenty of research to back that up.
This topic hits close to home because I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety most of my life. Starting in early high school, I regularly met with a counselor and was also prescribed an SSRI to help combat what I was going through at the time. Only with age and years of experience have I cultivated a life largely free of the symptoms of those conditions. Because of my experience, I truly believe in the psychological benefits of exercise and weight training in particular.
The great thing about weight training as a mood enhancer is that it attacks the problem from multiple angles. Chances are that a person will benefit from at least one of these effects.
Endorphins: During any exercise, endorphins are released which provides a temporary reduction in the perception of pain. Intensity matters here. Weight training is a good choice because it is generally medium to high intensity. Low intensity activity (think walking) may not trigger release of these chemicals and it’s possible that very high-intensity (e.g. HIIT) may be causing more stress than your natural endorphins can counteract. If you’re interested in learning more about the intricacies of exercise induced hormones, this is a good place to start.
Physical appearance: As you get into a routine of working out, you’ll no doubt begin to see some positive changes in the mirror. As a sometimes data obsessed person myself, my biggest peice of advice on this front is to track your physical progress in whichever way makes you feel the best. If you think you’re looking your best when looking at the mirror and then a tape measure takes that away from you, use it less often or throw it in the trash. Same goes for an unfriendly mirror while your making gains (or losses) you want on a scale or measuring tape. Tracking your progress should be a positive experience.
Sense of accomplishment: One of the core principles of weight training is the concept of progressive overload; increase the weight, volume of reps, intensity or frequency at defined intervals (typically each time you’re in the gym for beginners). Similar to seeing progress in your physical appearance, seeing the weight or number of reps go up each time you’re in the gym is a huge motivating influence and potential mood boost.
Stress releasing movements: There are few things like moving a bar or machine through a really difficult rep. Think of the release of stress you might get from going to town on a punching bag minus the higher risk of joint pain and that’s what you can get from a weight training program. Had a stressful day? Take it out on the weights and I promise you’ll feel better for it.