Depression is a common and serious mental illness that affects many people worldwide. However, most people refuse to acknowledge it or think it will go away on its own. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, negatively impacts how you feel and may influence your thoughts and actions. It causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.
Besides emotional and mental drainage, depression can burn a hole in your wallet. Besides the expensive psychotherapy session and medications, depression can hamper your focus and lead to a lack of focus and a decline in productivity in the workspace — a double whammy, if you will.
Plus, psychotherapy and medication aren’t guaranteed to fix depression. These treatments are mostly a means of quick relief for individuals with mild to moderate depressive disorders.
People dealing with depression are more susceptible to chronic health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and hypertension. Individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder also face reduced life expectancy.
Depression often leads to decreased physical activity, which can lead to a snowball effect and worsen your overall health and well-being. Getting more physically active can help relieve your mood and improve your physical condition.
On the other hand, physical exercise can be an effective and budget-friendly method of coping with depression. Joining a gym can motivate you to stay consistent with your training goals. It can also help you stay accountable.
You can go to the gym in a bad mood, but no one ever leaves a training facility feeling low and sad. The sweating, huffing, and puffing might make you feel tired physically, but the dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin rush will make you walk on cloud nine.
Aerobic Training and Depression
A 2018 meta-analysis comprising 455 subjects showed that aerobic exercise done at moderate intensity for 45 minutes on average, three times per week for almost nine weeks, showed a significantly large overall antidepressant effect. 
This meta-analysis of 11 studies, compromising 13 comparisons, proves that consistent physical training has antidepressant effects. However, this is not why we are here. This article aims to explore if weight training can relieve depression.
Strength Training and Fighting Depression
When battling depression, strength training is the last thing on your mind. In fact, people with clinically diagnosed depression are usually less physically active than healthy individuals. However, getting your body moving can be the best thing you can do when battling depression. Exercise will not only help you deal with depression, but it will also calm your anxieties.
A 2018 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) meta-analysis analyzing 33 clinical trials for the effects of resistance exercise on depression is the most popular and detailed research on the subject . Subjects in 25 out of 33 studies dealt with physical or mental illnesses.
Of the 1,877 participants of the study, 947 had prior experience in strength training, and the remaining 930 subjects were part of a control group. Every individual had a validated self-report or clinician-rated measure of depressive symptoms. Some people had depression as their main diagnosis, whereas others had it as a secondary diagnosis following illness, injury, obesity, or old age.
The average duration of the training programs in the 33 studies was 16 weeks and ranged from six to 52 weeks. Furthermore, the training frequency ranged between two to seven days per week. Although the median training frequency comes out to be 4.5 days, most training programs in the 33 studies included three weekly training sessions.
Result — Does Lifting Weights Relieve Depression?
Irrespective of the training frequency, program duration, length, and training intensity or volume, each group showed improvement in depression markers at the end of their training program. Furthermore, even when the subjects showed no noticeable changes in their physiques, their mental health improved.
Researchers found that subjects in trainer-led workouts showed better improvement in mental health than exercisers who trained on their own. Plus, shorter training sessions proved to be more beneficial in relieving depression. However, it wasn’t clear if the shorter workouts were more intense or had less volume.
Subjects with more intensive depression symptoms achieved better results from lifting weights. These folks also improved more than patients with less severe depression symptoms. Notably, people with intensive depression symptoms were clinically diagnosed, whereas those with less intensive cases were self-reported.
Like other exercises, resistance training promotes the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) into the brain’s hippocampus region. This area of the brain is responsible for mood regulation. However, the hippocampus region shrinks to up to 25 percent of its normal size in people with depression. The release of BDNF helps restore the hippocampus region to its full size and improves communication between cells.
While the results of this meta-analysis have been positive, more research must be conducted to assess the exact anti-depressant mechanism of weight training. Additionally, since this meta-analysis involves such a wide range of studies, the data didn’t follow fixed standards. Using a controlled end-to-end environment on such a large subject pool can help establish the exact weight training protocols for people dealing with depression.
How To Get Started With Strength Training To Relieve Depression
Here is a step-by-step guide to getting started with strength training to relieve depression:
Find the Right Sport
There is more than one way to skin the cat when it comes to fighting depression through weight training. Each individual has different preferences, and you must choose the right sport for yourself depending on your training objectives. You could select from bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, or CrossFit. Pick one that you can relate to and stick to it for the long term.
Choose a Program
Most people pick the first strength training program they come across. However, this sets them up for failure. You must choose a training program that matches your lifestyle and current conditions. For example, beginners shouldn’t select a high-volume training program that involves training six days a week. This will leave them exhausted and increase their risk of injury.
You must always start with the end in mind. What are your training goals? Do you want to hit a certain weight, or are you just doing it for an adrenalin rush or an endorphin boost? There are no right or wrong answers here.
Also, people that want to lift weights to relieve depression should have short-term objectives. Think about what you want to achieve in that workout, week, and month. Remember, you want to keep the goals attainable. Setting unachievable goals can lead to a loss of motivation.
Make it Fun
The day your training program starts feeling like a chore, its days are numbered. You must keep your workouts interesting by trying new things every day. You could also focus on learning new skills or setting and breaking your PRs.
Have a Support System
Starting a training program while battling depression can be an uphill battle. At this point, you need people in your corner that can motivate you to put your best foot forward. Share your aspirations and goals with these people, and they will help keep you accountable.
Things To Consider While Lifting Weights To Relieve Depression
While lifting weights can help fight depression, there are a few things you must consider. You must always follow the correct exercise technique and a personalized workout program to get the best bang for your buck. Following a vanilla training program or ego lifting will not only lead to substandard gains, but they will also significantly increase your risk of injury.
Plus, you must always remember the reason behind starting weight training. Some people get obsessed with building muscle mass, leading to a state known as ‘bigorexia.’ In this condition, you’re constantly insecure about your small muscles and are always thinking about building more muscle mass. Bigorexia can contribute to your anxiety and depression. You must always remind yourself that you are doing it for your overall health and well-being and not to impress anyone with your muscles.
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. One cannot talk about bodybuilding and depression and not talk about steroids. Anabolic steroids, such as Tren, Deca, Dianabol, and Winstrol, affect your mood and can lead to depression. People dealing with depression must stay away from anabolic steroids.
How often should I lift weights in a week to fight depression?
There is no fixed weekly training frequency for easing depression. However, the 2018 JAMA meta-analysis detailed in this article mostly consisted of studies that involved training three days a week.
Can I work out after taking anti-depressants?
Yes. Working out after taking antidepressants is generally safe. However, you must get your doctor’s clearance before starting a training program if you’re taking any other medications with it. For example, beta-blockers can skew your heart rate, leading to trouble while programming zone two and three training.
If you are starting to work out while using anti-depressants, you must start slow, monitor your feelings, keep an eye out for side effects, and stay hydrated. Stop your training session if you feel dizzy or uncomfortable, and consult your healthcare provider.
Which is better for fighting depression, cardio training or resistance training?
Several studies prove the effectiveness of aerobic training in relieving the symptoms of depression . Plus, the 2018 JAMA meta-analysis leaves no doubt that lifting weights can help combat depression. However, there is a lack of scientific data to prove if one technique is better than the other.
Most people should use a combination of strength and cardio training to relieve depression. The ideal training program would comprise three weekly training sessions of resistance and cardio training each.
That said, neither cardio training nor weight training is a cure for depression. You must stay consistent with your training program to fend off depression in the long term, build strength and muscle mass, and improve your physique aesthetics.
Can I stop my depression medication after I start working out?
The release of feel-good hormones after a training session might make you want to stop taking your anti-depressants; however, you should never make this decision on the fly. You must stick to your medication and only stop them after consulting with your doctor.
Should I take my doctor’s clearance before starting a workout plan if I’m depressed?
Yes. You must always consult your doctor before starting a training regimen if you are taking depression medication or psychotherapy sessions. Plus, you must declare your health condition in the gym membership form and inform the staff.
Contrary to the generally accepted dogma, one cannot “snap out” of depression. It is a serious medical condition that requires proper attention and treatment. Besides medication and psychotherapy, starting a strength training routine can be incredibly effective in combatting depression.
It is time we stop looking at weight training only as a means to build an aesthetically-appealing physique and start promoting its mental health benefits. Remember, whenever you feel sad, burdened, low, and think you have better things to do than lift weights, it is just the right time to pump some iron. Thank yourself later. Best of luck!
- Morres, I. D., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Stathi, A., Comoutos, N., Arpin-Cribbie, C., Krommidas, C., & Theodorakis, Y. (2019). Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Depression and Anxiety, 36(1), 39-53. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22842
- Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018;75(6):566–576. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0572
- Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Richards J, Rosenbaum S, Ward PB, Stubbs B. Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. J Psychiatr Res. 2016 Jun;77:42-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2016.02.023. Epub 2016 Mar 4. PMID: 26978184.