For far too long, I considered strength training to be an uber-intimidating workout regiment fit for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I blame my parents’ affinity for ‘80s action movies and Hollywood’s unrealistic expectations of what a man’s body should look like (not to mention the extreme physical lengths men are required to go to meet those expectations). I certainly considered weight training to be a “dude’s workout” — something that would make me “too bulky” or “too masculine” and therefore less feminine and appealing to the dude brah bro men lifting weights at the gym. That I can blame on society’s unrealistic and often unhealthy expectations of what a woman’s body should look like, and what we, as women, should hope to gain from any sort of physical activity — a way to shrink our bodies, not celebrate and increase the strength of our bodies.
Thankfully, my thinking has evolved over the years, as has my relationship with working out in general and strength training in particular. That evolution was no doubt propelled by pregnancy and the postpartum period, where I was acutely aware of all my body could do and how my body could and did change. From pushing back on the idea that I had to downplay my innate strength as my body stretched and expanded to house another human being, to learning to love (or at least not automatically hate) the physical reminders of pregnancy, labor, and delivery in the aftermath of childbirth, I’ve gained a better understanding of how to use workouts to celebrate my physical and mental fortitude — not diminish it. And that celebration goes hand-in-hand with caring for and protecting my mental health, too.
Enter: strength training.
Rarely do people consider the mental benefits of working out, especially a workout that relies heavily on weights. More often than not, the possibility of a drastic physical transformation is touted as the end all be all of dedicated physical activity. Just take a gander at any workout rubric and you’ll likely see descriptors using words like “toning” and “elongating” and “problem areas” and “lengthening” and “shrinking.” But these superficial benchmarks of exercise “success” do impact our mental health, albeit negatively and often so subtly that we don’t realize what we’ve done to our minds until there’s a serious problem to address.
Extreme workout behaviors — even ones that are established over time — can lead to disordered eating habits, like anorexia or bulimia, and orthorexia, or excessive exercise. And studies have shown that excessive exercise can lead to depression, self-isolation, and can increase a person’s anxiety levels. In other words, an unhealthy relationship with working out isn’t just physically unhealthy, but can be mentally debilitating. And given the constant messaging associated with working out — especially workouts geared towards women — it’s easy to see why many Americans create unhealthy associations with diet and exercise.
But with a different, more steadied approach to working out and a healthy relationship with the gym or an at-home exercise routine, a person’s mental health can and will likely improve, even if they didn’t have any previous mental health issues. And strength training in particular facilitates a mind-body connection that can enhance one’s mental state, in both the short- and long-term.
For example, a 2010 study found that strength and resistance training can be a “meaningful intervention for people suffering from anxiety,” and can in some cases even reduce a person’s level of anxiety. The same study found that strength training has been linked to a decrease in depression (though it does acknowledge that more research and additional studies should be deployed to further assess just how impactful strength and resistance training can be on depression and those who have it).
Strength training has also been linked to an increase in one’s self-esteem, per the same 2010 study. Researchers Amenda Ramirez and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., write, “high self-esteem is highly associated with positive physical and mental well-being. Resistance training has shown to improve self-esteem in healthy, younger, and older adults, as well in cancer, cardiac rehabilitation, and depression patient populations.”
This is to say nothing, of course, of the common impact any physical activity can have on the mind. When we workout our bodies release a slew of feel-good hormones, including dopamine, endorphins, adrenaline, and endocannabinoid. These hormones are associated with positive emotions, like confidence, happiness, capability, and while leading to a decrease in stress and anxiety. And additional studies have shown that establishing a regular workout routine can lead to a decrease in depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD symptoms, and can cause an improvement in memory, sleep, and overall mood.
None of this is to say that working out should be considered a substitute for professional mental health care, or even medication, like an anti-anxiety or anti-depression drug. Just like you can’t “think your way out of depression” or just “calm down” in order to decrease your anxiety, you can’t exercise your way out of mental illness.
But regular exercise, and strength training in particular, has shown to benefit our mental as well as physical selves. So no, you don’t need to look like Arnold to reap the rewards of strength and resistance training. And no, you don’t have to shrink yourself in order to be “successful” at lifting weights. By establishing a consistent, sustainable workout plan — and giving yourself the space and grace to take breaks and recharge! — you can work towards being both physically and mentally strong.