When most of us hear about strength training or weight lifting, a certain stereotype creeps into our minds that can make the experience a bit off-putting. That just goes to show how harmful stereotypes can be, not just for those that are stereotyped, but for those that hear them. I hope that after reading this article some of you feel more comfortable adopting a weightlifting practice, as it can have a profoundly positive impact on one’s mental health.
I started my weightlifting practice approximately six years ago. Weightlifting was one of the first exercise practices I learned about when I was looking to be “healthier.” In retrospect, I recognize my desire to be healthier was more a desire to be thinner and a manifestation of a fat phobic culture. I say this to push those who are thinking about adopting any exercise practice to question why they might want to adopt such a practice. It is okay to want to adopt an exercise practice for the sake of health and wellness, but we must not correlate health with thinness.
That said, weightlifting and strength training have both helped me in ways that transcend the physical. When I first started weightlifting, I was astonished at the amount of focus I was able to tap into. Up until then, the activities that required me to focus where very much based in cognitive functioning. It was as if the focus was only possible through my brain. However, when I started to notice the amount of focus that came from weight lifting, it helped me realize how focus can be embodied in a variety of ways. When you focus on a particular muscle during strength training, your focus isolates within that region. Additionally, this new level of focus transfers into the cognitive focus we are all most familiar with. Before I started lifting, I found it easy to get frustrated and lose focus with daily tasks. In addition to becoming physically stronger, weight lifting helped me better deal with other focus-requiring activities. A recent study on rats concluded that aside from gaining strength, weight lifting changed the cellular environments in their brains and improved their ability to think .
Aside from this increased ability to focus, I also witnessed a change in the way I felt. Feeling my body become stronger, I gained a newfound happiness. I have always been what many call a “busy body.” Weight lifting gave my body an outlet for all this energy that resides within me. Six years into my weightlifting practice, I can say I have had seasons where I lift regularly and seasons where I didn’t. During those times when I wasn’t lifting, I was more susceptible to negative thought patterns and depressive moods. Without the release of energy I got from lifting, I was carrying around a lot of stagnant energy that made me feel emotionally heavy. Some studies have found that people with mild and moderate depression who perform strength training two or more days a week saw reductions in their symptoms and suggested that this type of exercise may be even more beneficial for those with more severe symptoms . Additionally, some people reported that weight lifting helped them better deal with their anxiety .
Weightlifting has different effects for everybody, but there is a general trend of positive effects on one’s mental health. Personally, I find the practice to be meditative—like yoga and running. So if you don’t think that weightlifting might be for you right now, I urge you to try a different exercise practice, especially if you are susceptible to depression and anxiety. I have found that a combination of yoga, weightlifting, and running work best for me in dealing with negative thoughts and my anxious tendencies. Do you have an exercise practice? What about a movement practice? If not, where would you like to start?