Strength training for mental wellbeing

Why do you strength train? Or have you never considered it before?

Most people who start lifting weights do it because they want to build muscle or look more ‘toned’ and lean.

Strength training makes me feel great. It makes me feel strong, powerful and freaking awesome! The satisfaction you feel when seeing the weight you can lift go up is amazing.

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Current NHS guidelines on physical activity are:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity PLUS
  • Strength exercises on 2 or more days a week

I feel most people are aware of the aerobic component of the guidelines are well known, whereas the strength training component are less so.

There is a whole host of physical benefits of lifting – increased insulin sensitivity1, lowered blood pressure2 and reduced risk of osteoporosis3 and sarcopenia (especially important for the more elderly out there!).

However, one aspect of health that isn’t so often talked about in relation to strength training is mental wellbeing. So I thought I’d share a few of the benefits strength training can bring to your mental health.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain has a large public health burden. Randomised control trials and systematic reviews (the strongest form of epidemiological evidence) of these have shown that all types of exercise are effective at reducing pain in those with chronic low back pain4. One review demonstrated that strength training alone can minimise pain and was the best form of exercise for improving physical function in those with chronic back pain4. These effects were, however, greatest in a supervised health care setting4.

Cognition

Cognition is ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses’.

Problems with cognition, especially in the elderly, is a significant health issue, such as mild cognitive impairment and dementia. It is understandable therefore, that many of the studies into the effects of exercise on cognition are done with older adults. Strength training is particularly beneficial in this age group as they can often participate in strength training whilst having limited cardiovascular activity. Strength training has been associated with mild to moderate improvements in cognition, particularly memory tasks, in healthy older adults5.

This is particularly significant when you take into account the fact that the risk of a fall is increased by 76% by poor muscle strength and those who’ve had a fall are three times as likely to fall again6. A fall in an elderly patient can be life-changing and even life-threatening. Once we reach 30, we lose an average of 3-8% of our muscle tissue per decade. Strength training can minimise this loss and reduce the risk of sarcopenia. In this population the holistic benefits of strength training are really seen.

Depression

Exercise as an aid in the management of depression is a well known and utilised treatment option. From my personal experience, however, I have seen a greater focus placed on aerobic training such as running, over resistance forms of exercise. All studies into the effect of strength training on depressive symptoms have yielded positive results, with large reductions in depressive symptoms7.

Self-esteem

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Self-esteem is how a person feels about themselves. Good self-esteem is associated with improved physical and mental wellbeing, including greater levels of happiness8. Overall self-esteem is relatively stable, however, large changes in physical self-esteem can cause changes in overall self-esteem7. Strength training improves self-esteem in both younger and older healthy adults, as well as those with pre-existing conditions such as cancer and depression9–11.

Sleep

Sleep is gaining increasing recognition as a key component of health.

In an ever-busier lifestyle, unless you’re prioritising sleep, it is easy for you to not be getting what you need. When it comes to diagnosed sleep-related conditions, the most common are insomnia and sleep apnoea12. Strength training can help you get to sleep faster and reach a deeper sleep13.

 

These studies show that strength training is not only good for your physical health, but your mental health too. It also highlights how strength training is not only for the young, benefits can be seen up into the older years of life.

I would love you to read this and think, Wow! I want to give strength training a go. But I understand you might be thinking ‘where to start!’…………….

Do what feels feasible to you, and build up if you can and want to. Even 5 minutes a couple of times a week is better than nothing. You don’t even have to use weights, your own bodyweight will do.

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Dr Chatterjee has written a ‘5 minute kitchen workout’ you can find here: https://drchatterjee.com/5min-kitchen-workout/ if you’re unsure where to start or feel daunted by the prospect of lifting weights or going to the gym check this out.

If you like the gym environment and have the funds to support it or are already a member of a gym, ask a personal trainer there if they can check your form is correct before diving in, this will help prevent injury.

If home workouts are more your style even a one-off session with a personal trainer to ensure your form is correct before doing home workouts is another option.

If not, try at least to YouTube form from qualified personal trainers on YouTube or get to the library/book shop to get some books with exercises and proper form shown, especially before you think of lifting heavy! Whilst strength training is great, it’s important to do so sensibly and safely to prevent injury.

If motivation is likely to be your biggest barrier to getting going and continuing to incorporate some resistance training into your life, try roping in a friend or one of your family. It’s much harder to bail if someone is waiting to train with you, and you can enjoy sharing each other’s progress as well as making workout sessions sociable.

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I hope this inspires you to see the holistic benefits of strength training and helps you to get started if never worked out this way before.

Feel free to leave a comment/message me if any questions.

Emma  x

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