There are certain stereotypes that many people hold about guys who lift weights. If a man chooses to lift weights over, say, running or playing sport, then surely his main motivation is to focus on his appearance and get jacked. We may think that guys who are obsessed with working out must have weak egos or are prey to cultural expectations about what a man should look like.
However, lifting weights is so much more about trying to live up to standards of masculinity. For many men (me included), lifting weights is a way of protecting mental health. And new research is highlighting that it’s effective at achieving this.
Lifting Weights for Mental Health
As soon as I started working out seven years ago, I was hooked. I’ve always loved to walk a lot (probably for its effect on my mood), but up until seven years ago, I never adopted any sort of exercise regimen. I’m not really the sporty type and I hate running. Lifting weights and doing resistance training, on the other hand, just clicked with me. I enjoyed the repetition, the variability in exercises, the challenges involved, being able to see results, and simply the motion and feeling of lifting weights. It all helped to keep me focused on the present and forced me to push myself in order to achieve a positive result.
Lifting weights has been extremely therapeutic. It’s been my antidepressant, absolutely essential to adding more calm and stability into my life. And this is a common experience for many men who struggle with mental health issues. In fact, a review of dozens of studies found that lifting weights can effectively reduce the symptoms of depression, as well as prevent the onset of the condition.
Exercise is usually recommended for improving one’s mental health, as part of a comprehensive strategy that may also include professional treatment and other lifestyle changes. However, most research on the benefits of exercise for depressed patients has focused on aerobic exercise, which includes cardio machines, spinning, swimming, running, jogging, walking, hiking, and boxing.
The researchers behind this more recent, illuminating study on depression say it doesn’t seem to matter how often you go to the gym or how strong you get. The benefits are the same, whether you work out twice a week or five times a week, and irrespective of your gains.
The evidence illustrates that lifting weights can be just as effective at alleviating depression as running. What the study can’t tell us, nonetheless, is why strength training has an impact on mental health. More research needs to be done on how resistance training changes the neurochemistry of the brain and, in turn, our moods. On the other hand, we do know that weight training (like any exercise) releases endorphins, which produce feelings of euphoria and well-being. It may also be the case that some of the psychological benefits could be down to the expectation that working out will lead to improvements in mood.
Challenging Preconceptions About Lifting Weights
I used to be a pretty skinny guy. But now, after really getting into working out over the past several years, I have definitely bulked up. That was never really my goal, although, as I mentioned, being able to see results is motivating. And I do like being able to notice improved strength and posture. (By the way, I’m not denying that, at times, being more toned may boost my ego, especially when people notice; although that has been more of a side-effect to working out, rather than a motivating factor).
I didn’t start lifting because I wanted to look more attractive or attain a macho, jacked appearance. I just discovered that it was the kind of exercise I enjoy doing the most. And as I experienced the mental health benefits of lifting, I made strength training a part of my routine. If I go a week without hitting the gym, I notice a difference. I feel more tense, stressed, anxious, and down. Doing resistance training, especially when I really push myself, offers incredible relief. I know the research suggests that I would get the same benefits if I worked out less intensely; but subjectively, anyway, I feel better improvements in my mood the harder I train.
Lifting weights can be an effective way to raise your self-esteem, without boosting your ego in the process. It may be true that many men do want to get big muscles as a fix for low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or personal insecurities. But not all men lift weights in order to look more ‘manly’ or as a way to hide deep personal issues. Some guys get toned or bulky simply because that’s the outcome of an exercise regimen which benefits their mental health.
I think it’s important that we do away with the ‘macho’ label we attach to lifting weights and having a robust physique. Of course, plenty of people do hit the gym for superficial reasons (these are the men who skip leg day). But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge men who build muscles and strength. We may think it’s a sign of male ego and that if someone is jacked they must be insecure, overcompensating, or aggressive. Yet some of the calmest, happiest, and most together men are those who regularly work out.
Personally, I view the gym as a kind of sanctuary, a place where I know I can improve my mental health. Lifting weights can drastically alter my mood and the way I think. Without a doubt, it’s been a real game-changer in my life.
About Sam Woolfe
I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.
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