You probably know that strength training has many physical health–related benefits, including a lower risk of all causes of death, fewer heart attacks and strokes and improved body composition (Garber et al. 2011). However, did you know that it can also help with your mental health? O’Connor, Herring and Caravalho (2010) completed an extensive review of the research on this topic, admitting only studies that met certain criteria for quality research.
So what does the research show? Amenda Ramirez, who has a degree in exercise science from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (UNM), and Len Kravitz, PhD, the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at UNM, summarize highlights of the findings below.
Resistance Training and Anxiety
While it is normal to experience anxiety in relation to interviews, tests, new challenges or performances, prolonged anxiety is associated with sleep disruptions, mental distress, bodily pain, poor health and limitations to physical activity.
From the seven resistance training studies on this topic that met the criteria for inclusion in the review, the researchers conclude that resistance training is a meaningful intervention for people suffering from anxiety. Interestingly, two of the seven studies compared the effects of high-intensity resistance training (exercises performed at 80% of 1-repetition maximum [1-RM]) with the effects of moderate-intensity training (50%–60% of 1-RM) and found that the lower intensity was more effective in reducing anxiety.
Resistance Training and Improved Brain Cognition
Cognition refers to your brain’s processing ability to obtain knowledge through thought, experience and the senses. Cognition research attempts to determine how we transform events and experiences into stored memory, which can be recovered and used to complete mental and physical tasks. Highly associated with cognition is executive function, the “command and control” conductor of cognitive skills. This brain control center manages all of the tasks in your life, such as writing an article, doing a research project, preparing for a class and organizing a trip.
A great amount of research on exercise and cognitive function has been completed with older adults as subjects, as it’s been felt that exercise might offer this population consequential benefits in this area (Colcombe & Framer 2003). O’Connor, Herring and Caravalho note that seven randomized controlled studies show that resistance training improves several aspects of cognition in healthy older adults. Uniquely, one of the most profound effects is a marked improvement in memory and memory-related tasks. Additionally, it appears that improved executive function is a major benefit, both of resistance training (Anderson-Hanley, Nimon & Westen 2010) and of cardiovascular exercise (Colcombe & Framer 2003).
Resistance Training and Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is a person’s self-opinion. High self-esteem is strongly associated with positive physical and mental well-being. Resistance training has been shown to improve self-esteem in healthy adults (both younger and older), in populations with cancer or depression and in people undergoing cardiac rehabilitation.
As you have probably already experienced, insufficient sleep is a problem for your physical and mental health! Consistent sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours a night) is associated with cognitive impairment, mental illness, hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, stroke, daytime sleepiness, motor vehicle accidents and a diminished quality of life.
The research indicates that physically active people usually have healthy sleep patterns and a lower risk for sleep apnea. Furthermore, depressed persons with sleep disorders show a 30% improvement in sleep from a regular resistance training intervention. These results appear to become most effective after 8–10 weeks of consistent resistance training.