Resistance Training for Depression: Can it help?

I was recently rereading a much beloved philosopher of mine, Spinoza, (as you do - also, if you're a nerd like me link to a very cool essay right here) and it got me wondering once more about the mind-body problem - in other words, can we separate the body and mind? Are they one of the same "substance," (as defined by Spinoza) or, are they two separate mechanisms to be cared for separately? In turn, this question got me thinking about our approaches to the issue of mental health in general.

There are numerous approaches to this issue; I think the materialist would rely solely on therapy, medication, and medical advice in general. We know this to be true, sensible, and the most logical route of improving our mental wellbeing.

Nonetheless, it only covers a superficial scope of living well and recovering from mental illness - how many times have you heard someone talk about a certain hobby, passion, or practice that 'saved' them from the depths of mental darkness, or about a certain individual who supported them through their hard times? None of the above are material things, rather ones which appeal to our innate human spirituality and need for connection to something greater.

That is not to sound like a vaccine denier or religious apologist; understandably, we need the two types of 'treatment' to marry with one another, so we receive both the physical and metaphysical care we need.

In this article I will attempt to combine the scientific with the holistic in an attempt to suggest how resistance training can actually help with one's depression or mental illness. (Note: I am not a licensed professional, nor claim to be, and everything mentioned is supplementary advice to support yourself during tough times; please seek medical advice and help should you find yourself in the position of being mentally ill!)

1. Neuromuscular recruitment, neural drive, and connection with Cognitive therapy (CT)

The act of resistance training in of itself suggests a sort of symbiotic relationship between mind and body; with neuromuscular recruitment of motor units comes proprioception, a method where information is gathered to both the conscious and subconscious part of the brain, and keeps the central nervous system informed of any series of movements. (Including that relating to balance and coordination.)

Neural activation has been shown to produce different types of adaptations according to your goal (hypertrophy, strength, etc.) which shows that there is a clear influence on one's performance in the gym and their neural drive. Some studies have attempted to take this even further - van Praag (2009) suggests that improved cognition from exercise is likely to be multi-factorial; adaptations involving new nerve cell generation in the brain; an increase in neurotransmitters; (chemical substances that transmits nerve impulses across a synapse) and production of brain blood vessels for more efficient oxygen delivery and waste product removal, all culminate to help improve one's mental health.

Indeed, in one 2014 study on CT (Keshavan et al, 2014), mental illness is said to result from "...inefficient, maladaptive, and/or biased distributed neural representations." Much like we would take honey and lemon to soothe a sore throat, so too can we take necessary measures to help improve neural drive through fundamental movement patterns and strength training. To take it a step further, neuroplasticity is defined as the ability for the brain to change with the introduction of new experiences and motor skills. The last bit is key here - motor skills are honed and refined during a training program through progressive overload and neuromuscular adaptation.

Learning how to squat properly or better yet developing a more advanced skill such as a Turkish get-up requires coordination and motor units all interplaying at once - a key part in improving neuroplasticity. The harnessing of neuroplasticity is fundamental for cognitive enhancement in impaired neural systems - one of the driving forces at play in Cognitive Therapy.

Although CT is fairly new in the psychiatry scene, it's already proven hugely popular by people seeking out alternative therapies to treat their mental illness. Again, whilst strength training shouldn't be considered a form of CT or therapy, it's worth noting the connection between neuroplasticity in training programs and experience-dependent forms of cognitive therapy.

2.  Sleeping away stress

Arguably one of the biggest driving force in dictating either performance or mental wellbeing is sleep.  Consistent sleep deprivation (< 6 hours a night) is associated with cognitive impairment; mental illness; obesity; cardiovascular disease; and an overall diminished quality of life (O'Connor, Herring and Carvalho, 2010).

Research indicates that physically active people usually have healthy sleep patterns and a lower risk to sleep apnea. Of course, a lot of this is correlative - better mood means more proclivity to be more active and productive in the day, boosting esteem levels - but there's no doubt that the link between heightened cortisol, performance in the gym, and mental wellbeing is evident.

Furthermore, this specific research indicated that depressed people suffering from sleep disorders showed around about a 30% improvement in sleep after following a regular resistance training program. (Again, all correlative, but still noteworthy.) It should also be noted that these results appeared to become most effective after 8-10 weeks of consistent resistance training.

3. Now for the hippy shit.

I warned you I was gonna touch on the holistic side, didn't I?

I'm gonna go back to my boi Spinoza, because he is a gem and I like him a lot. He's also a very cool Deist who inspired Einstein in his spiritual inclinations.

"...the mind is united to the body because the body is the object of the mind" (Ethics 2, prop 21)."

Spinoza believed the mind and body are different conceptually but not ontologically (of being/existence etc). These terms are two different ways of description, just as we would describe music aesthetically or emotionally, and physically (i.e. in terms of physics - how the music is manifested literally in a sequence). He was a super clever guy and his philosophy is far too complex for me (a non-expert) to go over fully in this post without giving him enough justice, or boring you to death; but essentially he believed mind/body to be attributes of one substance; aka the Universe/God. In other words, there is an overarching sense of 'oneness' not only with ourselves (thought and physical action) but also with the world around is; it's not too dissimilar to mystical philosophies, or Eastern writers' thoughts, which is why it works so well with the concept of mindfulness and even Buddhist/Daoist schools of thoughts.

The reason I link Spinoza's theory of mind-body with strength training is to make the point that your physical and mental health are interlinked; when you look after your body with the right foods, correct exercise, and empower your muscles with strength and correct movement, so too will your mind feel the enormous benefits of the physical work you put in. When you truly connect with each rep, every movement, and the feeling of improvement you gain each session, then this will translate into self-empowerment; and, furthermore, manifest itself into gaining mental strength outside of the gym for routine, discipline, and reducing the risk of developing mental illness in your life.

And here is how I reconcile the scientific with the holistic. To say that training is purely a physical phenomenon is, in my eyes, naive and overlooking some of the most powerful components health can bring us; a strong, healthy body can inevitably lead to a strong, healthy mind, and caring for one inevitably lends you responsibility to the other.

When we become mindful of the material needs in our live - that is, food, water, exercise, sleep, medical care - whether we like it or not, so to do we create a positive trajectory for our spiritual and mental development. And I don't know about you; I think I'll go with the guy for whom Einstein had a big intellectual penchant for.