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Mental benefits of weight training: Lift your way to a happier brain

Mental benefits of weight training: Lift your way to a happier brain

Published Jan 6, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024

The link between exercise and mood is well-known. Working out makes you feel good inside-out. Weight training or resistance training involves the use of weights to increase muscle strength. Emerging evidence highlights the connection between weightlifting and mental health gains. Weight lifting benefits mood in a variety of ways, including decreasing depressive and anxious thoughts. It also improves levels of your reward and pleasure brain chemical, self-esteem and brain-protective compounds, making strength training one of the best exercises for mental health. These are a few ways resistance training can benefit you:

Be 45% less depressed 

A review of 33 studies with over 1800 participants found that 16 weeks of resistance training decreased depression [1]. 18 of those studies concluded that there was 45% reduction in depressive scores. This suggests that training for 3 days a week can help improve your mood and drain away negative thoughts. You can bank on these benefits at any age. A study among older adults found that 80% of those who performed resistance training 3 times/week, successfully classified as non-depressed on a clinical level, after 10 weeks [2]. 

Be 20% less anxious 

Adults enrolled in a study and performed resistance training consisting of activities like squats, bench press, and crunches with dumbbells and barbells. Training twice a week for 8 weeks led to 20% reduction in anxiety scores [3]. Got an upcoming presentation that you are anxious about? Add squats and crunches as tools in your anti-anxiety prep box. Resistance training can provide benefits for men and women of all ages. 9 out of 12 studies in a review established that a minimum of 6 weeks of training lowered anxiety scores in different population groups. 

Have 40% more dopamine

Your brain chemicals greatly influence the way you feel every day. Weightlifting boosts levels of dopamine, your reward and pleasure brain chemical. When people with low dopamine levels performed resistance training for 8 weeks, their dopamine levels increased by 40% [4]. One possible reason for this is that exercise increases the production of the enzyme (compounds that speeds up chemical reactions) that converts tyrosine (building block of dopamine) to dopamine [5]

Have 12% more self-esteem 

Having a positive attitude towards yourself can work wonders for your mental health. Exercise is one way of influencing your self-esteem, the way you perceive yourself. A major review of 113 studies, involving over 7000 adults reported exercise improved self-esteem levels [6]. Those who enrolled in 12 weeks of resistance exercise program where they trained 3 days/week, reported a 12% increase in their self-esteem scores [7]. Resistance exercise can improve muscle strength, fitness levels, and confidence which further adds to improvements in body-image and self-esteem levels [8][9].

Pump up brain-protective compounds

The science behind the beneficial mental health effects of resistance exercise is still evolving. One explanation for how training produces brain gains is through the production of protective brain compounds called myokines. These are a group of proteins released when muscles are exercised. On a basic level, resistance training comprises contraction and relaxation of different muscles. This pumps out a variety of myokines that improve brain health in the following ways [10][11]:

  • Protect brain cells from damage
  • Increase production of new brain cells and connections
  • Protect dopamine cells for optimal function
  • Decrease inflammation in brain cells

Resistance training can improve your physical and mental fitness for all-rounded wellbeing. As you lift weights to build stronger muscles, your brain is building stronger protection.


  1. Gordon, B. R. et al. (2018). Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA psychiatry75(6), 566–576.
  2. Singh, N. A. (1997). A randomized controlled trial of progressive resistance training in depressed elders. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences52(1), M27–M35.
  3. Gordon, B. R. et al. (2020). Resistance exercise training for anxiety and worry symptoms among young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Scientific reports10(1), 17548.
  4. Akbarpour, M. et al. (2020). The Effect of Resistance Training on Some Neurotransmitters and Men’s Pulmonary Function After Leaving Addiction. Disease and Diagnosis, [online] 9(1), pp.26–30.
  5. da Silva, W. A. B. et al. (2021). Physical exercise increases the production of tyrosine hydroxylase and CDNF in the spinal cord of a Parkinson's disease mouse model. Neuroscience letters760, 136089.
  6. Spence, J.C. et al. (2005). The Effect of Exercise on Global Self-Esteem: A Quantitative Review. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 27(3), pp.311–334.
  7. Psychou, D. et al. (2019). The effect of exercise on improving quality of life and self-esteem of inmates in Greek prisons. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise, 14(2). 
  8. O’Connor, P.J. et al. (2010). Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(5), pp.377–396. 
  9. Pontes, G.B. (2022). The effect of strength training on women’s happiness and well-being: a systematic review. 
  10. Scisciola, L. et al. (2021). Sarcopenia and Cognitive Function: Role of Myokines in Muscle Brain Cross-Talk. Life (Basel, Switzerland), 11(2), 173.
  11. Lee, B., Shin, M., Park, Y., Won, S. Y., & Cho, K. S. (2021). Physical Exercise-Induced Myokines in Neurodegenerative Diseases. International journal of molecular sciences22(11), 5795.

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