Exercise mental health benefits: cardio vs weights
Which boosts wellbeing better – doing cardio or weights?
The benefits of exercise on mental health are increasingly being recognised and exercise can be a great first-line option if you are feeling less than 100%.
In fact, the benefits of exercise have been found to make a difference for those who are feeling anxious or depressed. This indicates a very real – and strong– link between exercising and mental health.
But what exercise is best for improving mental health? Should you go for a walk, run up a hill, or lift heavy weights? What type of exercise gives the biggest benefits to your mental health?
Following is a discussion of aerobic exercise vs weight training in terms of the mental health benefits you can gain.
Cardio (aerobic exercise)
Many people know that going for a run ‘clears your head’ and helps you to ‘forget about your worries’. These are positive mental results that many casual runners actively seek after a day’s work.
How does it work? Aerobic exercise improves blood circulation and supplies the brain with more oxygen. The increased oxygen and bloodflow clears the mind, making thinking clearer, improving focus, and helping you overcome minor worries.
There are more links between aerobic exercise and mental health. Scientific studies have proposed a number of mechanisms to explain these links:
1. The Endorphin Hypothesis
The endorphin hypothesis proposes that wellbeing increases during exercise as a result of the release and subsequent binding of endogenous opiods - endorphins - to receptor sites in the brain.
2. The Hyperthermic Model
This model suggests that the primary reason we get a wellbeing boost during exercise is due to the elevation in body temperature that occurs when we are in movement.
3. The Distraction Hypothesis
A 1978 study by Bahrke and Morgan compared the effects on anxiety of walking on a treadmill, meditating or resting in a comfortable chair. It was found that all three groups showed decreased levels of anxiety after treatment, concluding that exercise can serve as a useful distraction or ‘time-out’ from stressful stimuli and feelings.
4. The Self-Esteem Explanation
A pioneering model by Sonstroem back in 1978 was deemed to be reasonably successful in finding correlation between physical activity and psychological health, based on self-esteem assessments.
This model presents a useful cycle of feeling better: physical activity increases physical ability, which increases a person’s self-belief, which consequently boosts self-esteem. The model found that people with higher self-esteem take greater pride in their bodies, so they continue to exercise, thereby maintaining their feelings of wellbeing.
More detail on these links, and others, is explained on a previous blog.
All of the above mechanisms clearly apply when going for a walk or a run, or when doing any form of aerobic exercise.
The mechanisms above also apply to lifting weights, to a lesser or greater degree. For example, the Endorphin Hypothesis and Self-Esteem Explanation are just as applicable; the Hypothermic Model may be less so, given body temperature can increase less during weight training than during running or walking.
Weight training may offer unique benefits however, that are not possible through aerobic training below.
Key to these benefits may be related to the strengthening and growth of muscle. This growth and development – even on a small scale – may have very significant effects on overall physiology, such as:
1. Chemical and hormonal response induced by muscle growth
2. Improved connections between the brain and the muscles: the ‘mind – muscle’ connection bodybuilders are familiar with
3. Postural realignment - reducing bodily stress physically and mentally, creating better energy flow through the body
4. Increased feelings of physical strength and ability
Those positive outcomes of weight training may sound a little vague. However, a large body of studies serves to indicate that such outcomes on wellbeing and mental health are possible.
Some of these outcomes and related studies are described below.
A 1982 study (Tucker, Larry A. "Effect of a Weight -Training Program on the Self-Concepts of College Males") compared 60 college males who enrolled in a weight training class with 45 college males who were not. The Tennessee Self-Concept Scale was used for self-esteem measurements.
The Tennessee Scale measurements between groups at the end of the study confirmed the hypothesis that “males who participate in a weight-training program tend to develop significantly better self-concepts than those who do not participate in such an activity.”
The study also concluded: "Apparently, regular training with weights tends to bolster significantly feelings of personal pride, confidence, and self-worth…few modes of exercise elicit overt effects comparable to this form of exercise."
A 1983 study (Trujillo, C. "Effects of weight training and running exercise intervention programs on the self-esteem of college women”) compared undergraduate females split into three groups: weight training (13 subjects), running (12 subjects), control (10 subjects).
Changes in self-esteem measured using before and after standardized tests found significant increases for both the weight training and running groups. The control group did not show self-esteem gains.
The weight training group was found to have the greater increase in self-esteem scores: "Although 35% of the running group felt both physically and psychologically better, 83% of the weight training group felt the same way."
(It’s important to note that the sample sizes in this study are relatively small.)
Fighting Chronic Fatigue
A literature review by O'Connor, Herring and Caravalho in 2010 analysed the results from previous studies on mental health and exercise. 94% of the 70 randomized studies on exercise and chronic fatigue show that exercise is clinically beneficial, even more so than drug or cognitive-behavioral interventions. Furthermore, exercise that involved only strength training showed the largest improvements in chronic fatigue.
Better Brain Functioning
A 12-month 2008 Canadian study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine compared 155 over-60’s women split into two groups: one that did resistance training; the other that did balancing and toning exercises only.
At the end of the 12-month program, the resistance training group showed a 15% increase on standardised mental skills tests compared to the balancing and toning only group.
Getting Better Sleep
A literature review by O'Connor, Herring and Caravalho, 2010, indicates that physically active people usually have healthy sleep patterns and a lower risk for sleep apnea.
When it comes to being physically active, the review showed that weight training is very effective: depressed subjects with sleep disorders showed a 30% improvement in sleep after regular resistance training. These results appear to become most effective after 8-10 weeks of consistent resistance training.
A potent combination
Real-life studies continue to provide evidence that links exercising with improvements in mental health. Studies involving both aerobic and weight training exercise have proven clear benefits.
Importantly, there appear to be a range of positive effects that seem to be more strongly influenced by weight training.
With that in mind, the most effective way to improve mental health through exercise may be to combine aerobic and weight training, to give yourself greater exposure to a wider range of benefits.
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Evidence of links between exercise and mental health:
Physical Activity and Mental Health, The Royal College of Psychiatrists
The Exercise Effect, Kirsten Weir, American Psychological Association, December 2011 http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise.aspx
Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms, Mayo Clinic Staff http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-exercise/MH00043
The Influence of Exercise on Mental Health, Daniel M. Landers, Regents’ Professor, Department of Kinesiology, Arizona State University http://www.fitness.gov/mentalhealth.htm