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Exercise and Mental Health: What We Know and What We Don't

July 11, 2018


Interesting Thought: Lifting Weights, Anxiety, and Depression


My most recent column with Outside covers two new studies that show weight training prevents anxiety and depression and leads to improvements in preexisting cases. Both studies are meta-analyses, which means they incorporate the findings of multiple experiments; 16 in the case of anxiety and 33 in the case of depression. These aren't just one-off findings.


I encourage you to read the column. It details the research (and why it's especially compelling); shares a bit about my own experience (and why I think lifting weights was more helpful than running); and shares the experiences of others, too. You can read here.


My editor and I decided to write this at the last minute, so I went to Twitter to solicit stories from those in the Peak Performance community. I was flooded with responses—unfortunately, too many to include in the column. But they were all thoughtful and valuable. So I've decided to share a few additional ones here:


"I started lifting heavy this year. It made a massive difference in my outlook. I think some of it came from the fact that I felt tougher and stronger, as lame as that sounds. Kind of like a meat-head effect. Lifting weights was a self confidence booster. This past year I was much more outgoing at work, and much more carefree, but not in a bad way. I was just much better at shrugging off the things that had bothered me previously." - Josh, 40, father of three, English Teacher in Racine, Wisconsin.


"I have suffered from depression since high school and have used lifting to "self-medicate" for many years. I tried antidepressants early on, but didn't like the side effects. With a regular lifting schedule, I really don't have any major symptoms, but I can tell if I go too many days without exertion." - Chris, a coach in Middlebury, Vermont.


"In 2012, I struggled a lot with OCD, depression, anxiety, and anorexia and have been taking antidepressants since then. However, I have been gradually reducing my medication, and starting next week I will be off of it. I've been lifting weights daily, and I feel that the results I have seen have boosted my self-confidence and improved my mood. Focusing on exercise also takes mental bandwidth that might otherwise be used for worrying and stressful thoughts." - Joseph, University of Utah Student studying Political Science.


"As I got more and more muscle the happier I got. Twenty-seven years later I still find so much joy in actually working out with weights and seeing improvements but am still unhappy with [my] body due to an unrealistic goal based on what society deems a “sexy male.” Dumb as shit I know. I’m a 45-year-old dad with far greater things to worry about but the former fat person in me controls that logical part of my brain." - Craig.


"I’m a very casual weightlifter. Bench press and deadlifts mainly. I definitely have strong emotional swings after heavy days - usually I’m more angry/aggressive. I usually attribute the mood swings to excess testosterone. But I notice after deadlifts and pull ups I tend to be easily depressed/saddened by things. I also run 15-20 miles a week and always have a strong positive emotional response after a run." - Ben.


Though no women responded to my solicitation for stories, the studies looked at both men and women of all ages and found similar effects. (A previous column in Outside, by Leah Princivalli, covered the growing women's powerlifting community and its connection to mental health. It was a good read.)


I included Ben's story above (the last one) to show that just because weightlifting has been more helpful than running for me, Ben had pretty much the opposite experience. This just goes to show that while we are starting to learn more about mental illness and mental health, there's still much we don't know.


What I do suspect, however, is that context is massively important. There are many different ways to run and many different ways to lift weights. Both external variables (e.g., Who do you train with? At what time do you train? How is your nutrition?) and internal variables (e.g., What are your goals? How much pressure do you place on yourself? How well do you recover? How much progress are you making?) probably play a large role. Plus, there's a chance the benefit I receive from weightlifting has less to do with moving iron and more to do with changing up a routine, running, that became intermingled with my OCD.


All of which gets to this: at this point, based on all the science I've seen, I think it's safe to say that any kind of physical activity has a strong potential to help with mental health. But there's a fair amount of individual variation. My neighbor Lindsey (a psychologist who is quoted in the Outside article) helped me to realize that perhaps the physical exercise itself, whatever form it takes, is necessary but not sufficient—and it's the variables like those mentioned above that are what make or break the intervention.


You could almost think of exercise as an enabling factor. It primes the pump and is conducive to other positive changes.


Again: If you're interested in this topic I'd encourage you to read the column. It goes into a lot of detail on what could be going on and how to apply these findings in the real world. If you've got a story about exercise and mental health that you're comfortable sharing, please do so by responding to this email. I'd love to keep this conversation going.


Coaching Corner: Remember, You're Supposed to Enjoy It


A month ago I was in the rare position to be a part of a team that was in the legitimate hunt for a NCAA national championship in track and field. It was a rare opportunity. Our university had never won a title in and no 'mid-major' university had won one in over 30 years. We had a shot, but it would take a great day.


Winning a team title in track and field is unlike other sports. It's a collection of over a dozen different events. Some you have individuals competing in, others you don't. There's a constant ebb and flow of action and inaction, nerves and excitement, highs and lows. It starts with the preliminary round day, where athletes have to place high enough to make the final round. Qualifying is the name of the game. If you don't qualify, your hopes and dreams are over. There is no excitement over performances in the preliminary rounds, it's a game of loss aversion and survival.


From a coaches standpoint, there is only relief that you've lived to fight again. And because you are relying on almost a dozen different individuals, you go through that cycle of hope and (hopefully) relief over and over again.During the preliminary day, we were filled with highs and lows; a false start here, a surprise into the final there.


As we wrapped up, I turned to the other coaches and commented on how emotionally exhausting it was. We had survived to have a fighting chance.There's a day in between prelims and finals, and during this off day, when you try to recharge, a text from my former high school coach, Gerald Stewart, came in. After talking about the close calls and near misses, he texted, "Remember, you're supposed to enjoy it."


Caught in the moment, fighting for a rare chance to achieve something special, I'd lost sight of the fact that this is what I had wanted to do. This is where I wanted to be. This wasn't something to go on an emotional roller coaster with, fretting whether we achieve an outcome or not. It was something that I was supposed to find joy in. And with one text, Coach Stewart reminded me to not get lost in the rollercoaster of emotions. Win or lose, to be blessed with such an opportunity is not a burden, but a gift.

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