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Resistance exercise may be the secret to relieving depression 

A new study has confirmed that resistance exercise training is highly beneficial for combating symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

The collaborative research, led by Professor Matthew P. Herring of the University of Limerick and Professor Jacob D. Meyer of Iowa State University, marks a pivotal step in understanding the therapeutic potential of exercise beyond its physical health benefits.

Focus of the research 

The researchers investigated how resistance exercise training, which involves muscle-strengthening activities that require muscles to work against a force or weight, can serve as an alternative therapy for anxiety and depression. 

These mental health conditions are recognized as significant public health challenges due to their high prevalence and the limitations of current treatment options. 

The researchers said that resistance exercise training may be an accessible alternative therapy to improve anxiety and depression, while also improving other important aspects of health.

Debilitating public health burdens 

“Anxiety and depressive symptoms and disorders are prevalent and debilitating public health burdens for which successful treatment is limited,” explained Dr. Herring.

“The healthful benefits of resistance exercise training, or muscle-strengthening exercise involving exerting force against a load repeatedly for the purpose of generating a training response, are well-established.”

“However, the potential impact of resistance exercise training in the treatment of anxiety and depressive symptoms and disorders remains relatively understudied. Moreover, the plausible psychobiological mechanisms, which help us to better understand how and why resistance exercise training may improve these mental health outcomes, are poorly understood.”

Beneficial physiological changes

The researchers argue that, while the available studies in this area are focused on relatively small sample sizes, there is sufficient evidence from previous and ongoing research to suggest that resistance exercise training does improve anxiety and depressive symptoms and disorders.

The study suggests that resistance training can lead to improvements in mental health through various physiological changes, such as increased insulin-like growth factor 1, cerebrovascular adaptations, and potential neural adaptations facilitated by controlled breathing during exercise.

Further research is needed 

“There is a critical need for confirmatory, definitive trials that adequately address limitations, including small sample sizes, but the limited evidence available to us provides initial support for the beneficial effects of resistance exercise training on these mental health outcomes, including increased insulin-like growth factor 1, cerebrovascular adaptations, and potential neural adaptations influenced by controlled breathing inherent to resistance exercise,” said Dr.  Herring.

“We are tremendously excited to have what we expect to be a highly cited snapshot of the promising available literature that supports resistance exercise training in improving anxiety and depression.” 

Exciting evidence 

“Notwithstanding the limitations of the limited number of studies to date, there is exciting evidence, particularly from our previous and ongoing research of the available studies, that suggests that resistance exercise training may be an accessible alternative therapy to improve anxiety and depression.”

Dr. Herring said that there is substantial promise in investigating the unknown mechanisms that may underlie these benefits to move us closer to maximizing benefits and to optimizing the prescription of resistance exercise.

Key behavioral treatment approach  

“The current research provides a foundation for testing if resistance training can be a key behavioral treatment approach for depression and anxiety,” said Professor Meyer.

“As resistance training likely works through both shared and distinct mechanisms to achieve its positive mood effects compared to aerobic exercise, it has the potential to be used in conjunction with aerobic exercise or as a standalone therapy for these debilitating conditions.”

“Our research will use the platform established by current research as a springboard to comprehensively evaluate these potential benefits of resistance exercise in clinical populations while also identifying who would be the most likely to benefit from resistance exercise.”

More about resistance exercise training 

Resistance exercise training, often simply called strength training or weight training, involves exercises that cause muscles to contract against an external resistance with the expectation of increases in strength, tone, mass, and/or endurance. 

The external resistance can come from dumbbells, weight machines, resistance bands, or one’s own body weight, among other sources.

Muscle hypertrophy

The principle behind resistance training is based on the body’s adaptive response to stress. Muscles grow and become stronger when they are forced to operate beyond their normal intensity. 

The process of muscle hypertrophy begins when muscle fibers sustain damage or injury, prompting the body to repair and replace the fibers. These repaired fibers increase in thickness and number to create muscle hypertrophy (growth).

Typical program 

A typical resistance training program includes exercises that work the major muscle groups of the body, both upper and lower. These exercises can be structured in various ways, depending on the goals of the individual, including improving muscle mass, enhancing muscular strength, or increasing endurance. Programs can vary in the number of repetitions, sets, and the intensity of the exercises.


Proper technique is crucial in resistance training to avoid injuries. This involves controlling the movements, maintaining correct posture, and breathing properly. 

Progression is another important aspect, where the amount of resistance is gradually increased to continue to challenge the muscles as they adapt and grow stronger.

Health benefits

Resistance training has been shown to offer numerous health benefits beyond muscle growth, including improving bone density, boosting metabolism, reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, improving balance and coordination, and enhancing mental health.

The versatility of resistance exercise training allows it to be adapted for almost any age group or fitness level, making it a valuable component of a comprehensive fitness program.

The study is published in the journal Trends in Molecular Medicine

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