4 Research-Backed Ways Lifting Weights and Eating Right Improve Mental Health

Deadlifts, protein shakes, and multivitamins are actually a smart way to care for your mental health.

Expert Verified By: Dina R. D’Alessandro, MS, RDN

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One of the greatest injustices is the fact that lifting heavy weights and eating a lot of protein has become associated with stupidity and immaturity. You know the stereotype: musclebound gorillas spend all their brainpower squatting and plotting their next protein shake — it’s the skinny kid in the library who actually has his priorities straight. People who will actually go far in life realize that lifting and dieting is a silly pursuit in vanity.

These stereotypes are utterly tragic because the science is rock solid: a person who wants to do everything they can to improve their brainpower and mental health should, in fact, dedicate time to lifting weights and eating to gain some muscle. Stepping up to a loaded barbell, yes, is a very good way to build an aesthetically pleasing physique, but a six pack is secondary to the longevity and mental benefits that accompany a session under the iron.

Here’s why.

front squat

1) Lower Levels of Stress

“Cortisol is a stress hormone it’s directly related to the autonomic nervous system,” says Dr. David Rabin, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and co-founder of Apollo Neuroscience. “It’s something you don’t want to be up all the time, not just because it increases stress but because it can also be stored in chemical markers on your DNA that tell the body to keep cortisol levels high. We’re now starting to understand that this gene expression can even be passed onto future generations.”

Lifting weights, we’ve found, helps to keep cortisol levels low. Not only has an 8-week block of resistance training been found to reduce cortisol and stress among people with PTSD, but dedicating a few months to regularly lifting weights has been seen to reduce resting cortisol in the general population as well.(1)(2)(3) Consuming a lot of sugar and insufficient amounts of water and fruits has also been seen to negatively affect cortisol levels.(4)(5)

Chronically high cortisol has been linked to anxiety, higher blood sugar, high blood pressure, more body fat, and even a loss of calcium from the bones. But training intensely too often can cause cortisol to stay too high, so make sure you follow a smart training program instead of maxing your lifts every time you go to the gym.

sleeping athlete

2) Better Sleep

Both lifting weights and following a healthy diet may improve sleep quality.(6)(7) A 2018 review of thirteen studies concluded that,

chronic resistance exercise improves all aspects of sleep, with the greatest benefit for sleep quality.(8)

Poor quality sleep, of course, can produce irritability, fatigue, and exacerbate mood problems. The benefits of exercise on sleep can be attributed to the reduction in cortisol, along with increases in testosterone and reductions in body fat and blood pressure.(9)(10)

“When we exercise, our body releases endorphins, hormones that make us happy and relaxed,” adds Dr. Ronit Levy, a psychologist and clinical director at Bucks County Anxiety Center. “We sleep better when we exercise regularly because we have a healthy outlet for stress. (And) better sleep helps with being able to handle stress and difficult situations, as well as learn and perform better.”

A healthy diet is critically important here as well, particularly the mineral called magnesium. Abundant in leafy greens, legumes, and nuts, magnesium is sometimes called the “relaxation nutrient” as consuming sufficient amounts has strong ties to better sleep quality and lower stress levels.(11)(12)(13) Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and walnuts, also have ties to better mental health, with some studies linking them to a reduction in anxiety.(14)(15)

lifting in mirror
Motortion Films/Shutterstock

3) Lower Depression Risk

If you’re suffering from depression or feel you might be, it’s important to speak with a doctor or mental health practitioner. And while experts will often suggest medication for combating depression, it’s not uncommon to hear of a “golden triangle” of treatment: therapy, medication as needed, and exercise.

There’s a lot of correlation between depression and obesity, and people with high amounts of body fat are considerably more likely to experience the condition.(16) But in addition to keeping one’s calories in check, strength training has also been seen to stimulate dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, three hormones that tend to be low in people suffering from depression. They’re responsible for motivation, drive, and mood stability, and they can be regulated by elevating your heart rate any which way, be it through strength training or cardio. But strength training is more effective at increasing testosterone and growth hormone, and adults with low levels are at a significantly higher risk of depression.(17)(18)(19)

Diet also plays an important role, here. In addition to the anxiety-reducing benefits of magnesium and Omega-3s mentioned above, a diet rich in a variety of nutrients like B-vitamins, lycopene, fiber, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D can impact depression risk and stabilize mood.(20)(21)(22)(23) But again, speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about depression.

Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

4) Improved Learning Capacity

A 2015 study concluded that twice-weekly strength training significantly slowed the disintegration of the brain’s white matter, which connects and passes information between different regions of the brain, and other research has suggested that lifting improves neuroplasticity and increases the production of BDNF, a protein that helps to create new brain cells.(24)(25)(26) When you develop the skill of strength, you’re activating learning pathways in the brain.

“In practicing strength training it not only builds up the strength in my muscles, but also connections between neurons, muscles, bones, and awareness of my body,” says Rabin. “If you establish that as a foundation of learning, it becomes easier to intuitively understand how strength training directly impacts the way we control our attention and the way we regulate our focus and emotions.”

Diet plays a part here, as well — consuming a lot of processed foods and sugar has been seen to decrease the production of BDNF, plus animal studies have found calorie controlled diets stimulate BDNF as well.(27)(28) A lot of this research is promoted among the elderly in order to help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but lifting and eating well have benefits for anybody wishing to study and improve their ability to learn and retain information.

deadlift group
Flamingo Images/Shutterstock

The Takeaway

Whether you’re a student in college or a student of life, a habit of lifting weights and consuming a wide variety of nutrients is an essential component of maintaining mental health, improving sleep quality, and learning effectively. Strength is a skill that needs to be learned, so instead of approaching it haphazardly, consider speaking with a strength coach to nail correct form and then follow a progressive strength program. Your brain will thank you.

Featured image via Flamingo Images/Shutterstock


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