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The science behind why lifting weights makes us feel so good

Exercise gives us endorphins. We know this. Going to a spin class, or even just a light jog, will flood your body with feel-good chemicals that make you feel pretty amazing.

But there is a special kind of buzz that you get from lifting weights. A feeling of invincibility, as though you’re untouchable – and that high can stay with you for ages.

But why does lifting weights make us feel so good? What is the actual connection between the physical exertion of picking up something heavy and the emotional release that comes with it?

A 2018 study found that strength training was linked to improvements in depressive symptoms, such as low mood, a loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness.

‘Interestingly, larger improvements were found among adults with depressive symptoms indicative of mild-to-moderate depression compared to adults without such scores,’ wrote the researchers at the University of Limerick.

‘This suggests resistance training may be particularly effective for those with greater depressive symptoms.’

The benefits were about the same, even if people were only lifting a couple of times per week – you didn’t have to weight train every day. And the findings revealed that it wasn’t improvements in strength or appearance that were helping to improve mental health, it was the simple fact of doing the training.

To get to the bottom of this link between weight lifting and mental health, we asked Jessie Pavelka, a fitness and wellbeing expert and founder of lifestyle app JP4, to explain why this feeling happens.

Why does lifting weights make us feel so good? Jessie says some of the science behind it is pretty unexpected.

Improves overall wellbeing

According to Jessie, there’s really no part of the body that isn’t impacted by weight training. Which makes sense when you remember that muscle covers almost every inch of you.

‘Let’s start with the muscles themselves,’ says Jessie. ‘On a physical level, muscles are cells or fibres that create force and movement in the body. Resistance training increases the size and strength of muscle; this is known as “hypertrophy”.

‘But to really buy into resistance training let’s go deeper.

‘When we repeatedly contract a muscle, the muscle releases proteins called myokines. 

‘At first glance, myokines promote skeletal muscle which increases bone health and absorption of nutrients in the bones themselves.

‘Look closer still and we see there is a network of systems communicating with each other.

‘From the deep and dense skeletal muscle, to the skeletal system, all the way to the brain. 

‘This is where things get really exciting.’

Improves cognitive function

Jessie explains that the myokines – those proteins that our muscles release when we work them hard – support cognitive function.

‘Cognitive function includes mobility, memory, logic and reasoning, processing, perspective and attention,’ she says. ‘Sounds pretty important, right? 

‘When we support our cognitive brain functions, our perception of life is elevated, and we tend to experience the world with more positivity.’

Which might be why things tend to look so much less bleak after a tough session of lifting in the gym.

Eases depression and boosts mood

‘With today’s hyper-connected, always-on way of living, we are experiencing more stress, anxiety, worry and overwhelm than ever before,’ says Jessie. 

‘There is a disconnect from our nature as human beings. We are meant to move and challenge our bodies but for many of us the only thing moving is our thumbs. This creates a disconnect to our reality and a constant mental dis-ease. That’s where resistance training can again help.

Jessie points to the 2018 study I mentioned earlier – published by JAMA Psychiatry – which found ‘significant’ reductions in symptoms associated with mild to moderate depression, based on performing resistance training two or more days a week.

‘Add to that, that the sample size in excess of 1,800 individuals also experienced improvements in mood generally speaking, and it’s clear to see why resistance training is growing in popularity,’ says Jessie.

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