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Mental Gains:
The Psychological Impact of Weight Lifting

by Aryana Adkanian | Monday, April 30, 2018

by Aryana Adkanian
Monday, April 30, 2018

Everyone talks about exercise and how it’s so obviously beneficial to one’s body composition. It’s no secret that exercise of pretty much any variety has a lasting impact on one’s overall physical health. So, because exercise is so good for my body, I’ve been going to the gym every week for the last 44 weeks (and counting). I perform my own self-created weight lifting regime an average of 5 days per week. At its most basic level, I pick things up and then put them down while listening to music.

I started weight lifting because of the physical benefits I knew I would receive. Exercise of any kind is obviously better than wasting away on a couch, binge watching Netflix, shoveling an entire bag of Doritos down my throat. Having no previous knowledge of the activity, I found out about weight lifting while deep diving through Google. I started watching fitness channels on YouTube and following bodybuilders and powerlifters on Instagram. I wanted to become like them. So, I became dedicated to weight lifting.

I officially started in July 2017, though before then, I did go to the gym semi-consistently, but never strayed very far from the cardio machines and didn’t really view what I was doing at the gym as highly valuable or worthwhile. Weight lifting changed that viewpoint.

The first couple weeks (or maybe months) of weight lifting were scary. I felt awkward and weird and I felt like I didn’t belong there amid all those bulky guys in cut off shirts and Under Armour gear. When I first decided to try weight lifting, I used to take two lightly weighted dumbbells and walk them down to an obscure corner of the gym and do my entire workout there, in that odd corner where no one else went, because I felt too unsure of myself. Eventually, though, I got used to it all. Eventually, I started lifting right next to those guys in cut offs and Under Armour. I realized they weren’t going to do anything to me. And I realized that I deserved to take up space in the gym, too. I mattered. I didn’t have to confine myself into a corner.

After months of consistency and dedication to weight lifting and to eating (somewhat) properly, I started noticing changes in my body. I started growing muscle. As a female who has been lazy and unwilling to partake in physical activity throughout much of my life, muscles are still a highly foreign concept to me. I remember the first time I felt my tricep muscles in my arms and my quad muscles in my thighs. If I’m being honest, they all still surprise me sometimes. Weight lifting, as one would expect, has undoubtedly changed my body composition and appearance.

I’ve became noticeably stronger, as well. Each month, I am consistently lifting heavier weights. My increased strength has also become beneficial outside of the gym. Things are just easier to do – I can prop open a door with ease, I can carry in more groceries in one trip, and I can even open jars without anyone else’s help.

But I’m beginning to realize that weight lifting has more than just physical benefits. Weight lifting has made me stronger physically, yes, of course – but it’s also made me stronger mentally. And I think those mental gains are more important than the weight of the dumbbell I’m lifting or the size of my biceps.

Weight lifting doesn’t just make me look better. It makes me feel better about myself. It helps me realize that my body does more than just look a certain way, and the strength of my legs matter so much more than the size of my thighs. As a society, we tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to look a certain way. Females in American society are expected to be small and frail and take up less space than males. Weight lifting has allowed me to realize that the ideal American female – the small, frail girl – isn’t what I need to be.

Weight lifting allows me to feel better about my own body, and it also works as a positive way to reduce stress. I wouldn’t exactly call it “therapy,” but there’s still something weirdly therapeutic about picking things up and then putting them down. Most days, when I’m tired or when work is hectic, going to the gym is one of the few things I look forward to. It heightens my mood and it makes me feel like I have accomplished something significant. Even on days when I’m feeling tired and sick and angry, weight lifting is usually able to calm my mood and give me a sense of purpose and fulfilment. Sure, maybe the feeling it gives me is only temporary, but I’ll still argue that it’s cheaper than traditional therapy and safer than prescription drugs. I don’t think the elation I feel from weight lifting is all made up in my head.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Research has consistently displayed a link between exercise and positive mental health benefits. Studies primarily revolve around those who perform cardiovascular exercises, such as running – after all, everyone has heard of a runner’s high. But there are also studies that specifically find strong mental health benefits associated with weight lifting.

Studies have shown that weight lifting can help all types of people cope with stresses, manage negative moods, and feel better about their overall selves. In 1994, Mirella P. Auchus and Nadine J. Kaslow conducted a study of five females with mental health issues which confirms that weight lifting can help an individual’s sense of well-being and create a feeling of normalcy. As published in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, when individuals with psychiatric disabilities participate in weight lifting therapy, “Clients’ abilities and strengths are focused upon instead of their disabilities. Furthermore, weight lifting gives these individuals an opportunity to experience a ‘normal’ activity, and some semblance of normality in their lives.”[1] As the study finds, weight lifting has an obvious positive impact on those with clinical mental health issues.

Weight lifting can also help “average” people cope with stress related to their jobs and personal lives. A 1993 study conducted by Nancy Norvell and Dale Belles and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology finds that male law enforcement officers benefit from a consistent weight training program. The controlled study looked at over 40 males who maintain moderate to high levels of stress, as expected by the demanding nature of their jobs. The study required participating officers to begin a strict weight training regime for 16 weeks. At the study’s end, most officers felt less stressed and showed more job satisfaction. Norvell and Belles explain, “Circuit weight training appears to produce symptom changes beyond such typical symptoms as depression, anxiety, and self-concept. In this study, changes were also found in self-reported hostility, physical symptoms, and job satisfaction.”[3] The officers’ workout sessions were only “three times per week, with a prescribed duration of 20 min.”[3] Adults with even the most busy, hectic schedules can surely find time to weight lift for at least 60 minutes spread throughout the week. If they’re willing to try it, everyone can gain from the mental benefits of weight lifting.

In a recent study conducted in 2015, Ceren Doğan interviewed several working adults who state that going to the gym allows them to maintain control over their lives, cope with stress, and ultimately become better versions of themselves. In Europe’s Journal of Psychology, Doğan writes, “Stress, depression, bad moods and frustration are expected to be combatted by the gym regime. […] Exercise, so the thinking goes, is purgative; it releases stress and frustration by relocating it to the exteriors of the body and soul.”[2] As Doğan’s interviews confirm, people may feel less stressed after a workout because they are releasing their stress into whatever they are doing – whether it is running, yoga, or weight lifting. Stress escapes through the gym. Doğan also states, “[F]itness training at the gym can be considered a means by which transformation of and control over one’s life is achieved. One of the reasons why this may [be] the case is that exercise in gyms itself requires discipline, self-surveillance, and ambition.”[2] Within the gym, people can change their lives. And every day, as they continue with their workout regimes and become stronger beings, they are reminded that they can change their lives – that they are changing their lives.

Weight lifting has not drastically changed my life. I am still the same person – I have the same job, I drive the same car, and I listen to the same music. I am still myself, but I am stronger than I was before. My physical strength reminds me of my mental strength. Picking things up and then putting them down reminds me that I can conquer anything I want, if only I pursue it with dedication, determination, and discipline.

I started exercising because it is so good for my body. Now, though, I exercise because it is so good for my mind. Out of all the muscles weight lifting has allowed me to develop, I cherish my mind the most. It’s not about the size of my triceps or my quads anymore – it’s about my mental gains.

Works Cited

1. Auchus, Mirella P., and Nadine J. Kaslow. “Weight Lifting Therapy: A Preliminary Report.” Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, Oct. 1994, pp. 99-102. PsycARTICLES, doi:10.1037/h0095510.

2. Doğan, Ceren. “Training at the Gym, Training for Life: Creating Better Versions of the Self Through Exercise.” Edited by Vlad Glăveanu. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, vol. 11, no. 3, 20 Aug. 2015, pp. 442–458. PMC, doi:10.5964/ejop.v11i3.951.

3. Norvell, Nancy, and Dale Belles. “Psychological and Physical Benefits of Circuit Weight Training in Law Enforcement Personnel.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 61, no. 3, 01 Jan. 1993, pp. 520-27. ERIC, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/....

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