Strength training doesn’t just build muscle — it also helps fight depression, a new study found

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  • Resistance training, also known as weight or strength training, can reduce symptoms of depression, according to a new meta-analysis of studies.
  • This form of exercise is about as effective at treating depression as aerobic exercise, according to the research.
  • That finding gives medical professionals a fresh way to fight depression, which is an extremely common form of mental illness, with major depression diagnosis rates rapidly on the rise, according to a new report.

Working out in just about any way seems to have huge benefits for your mental health.

Researchers have known for some time that aerobic exercise could significantly reduce symptoms of depression without any of the negative side effects associated with some medications. (Cardio exercise also has many positive effects on physical health, of course.)

Now, in a review of studies newly published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers say that resistance training can also help treat depression. From their analysis, in fact, it seems to work just as well as aerobic exercise.

This is a significant finding, since it’s the first systematic analysis of top-quality studies that assess the effects of resistance training on depression. Plus, it shows that people get mental-health benefits from a type of exercise researchers say is crucial for maintaining muscle mass as you age.

The finding also comes at an important time.

Rates of major depression are rapidly rising in the US, according to a new report published by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. Since 2013, major depression diagnoses have increased by 33%, with even bigger increases for millennials and adolescents, according to the report. Of all conditions affecting Americans, depression has the second biggest impact on overall health, behind hypertension.

squats workout

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The power of getting stronger

Resistance training – often called strength training – includes weight lifting and body-weight exercises such as push-ups.

We already knew that resistance training makes people stronger, builds muscle, and can improve endurance and power. There’s also good evidence that strengthening exercises can reduce anxiety.

But scientists didn’t know whether this type of workout could also reduce symptoms of depression in the way aerobic exercise does.

So the team behind the study analyzed data from 33 randomized clinical trials (considered the “gold standard” kind of study for medical research) with a total of 1,877 participants. They found that, overall, resistance training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms.

This was especially true for people whose depression symptoms were clinically mild or moderate. The effect was still significant for people with subclinical, less severe depression symptoms, but it wasn’t quite as strong in those cases.

Strengthening exercises helped reduce depression symptoms whether or not the study participants grew physically stronger, and it worked regardless of how healthy people were when they started the resistance training.

The researchers also looked at studies that compared the effects of resistance training to aerobic exercise among people with depression and found both were equally effective.

Aerobic exercise is also effective.

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Aerobic exercise is also effective.
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An important effect

The takeaway is that getting moving is enough to help with depression symptoms, no matter what type of activity you do.

That is a big deal. Depression affects more than 300 million people around the world. The economic burden of care and missed work carry totals to an average of $118 billion annually. The condition is strongly associated with other health struggles as well, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, and death.

The new Blue Cross Blue Shield report says that people with major depression are approximately 30% less healthy than people without the diagnosis, which translates to a loss of 10 years of overall healthy life expectancy.

Medications work for some people with depression, but not all – and treatment can be expensive.

Exercise is therefore a remarkable component of the arsenal of depression treatments. Not only does it lack negative side effects, but it also reduces a person’s chances of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the US (and also the leading cause of death for people with major depressive disorders).

Lifting weights or going for a run does not automatically cure depression. Some cases are more severe, and some cases may not respond as well to exercise as others.

But these forms of exercise have at least a moderate effect, which means they can help.