Move a Muscle, Change a Thought: Why Lifting Weights Could Help Your Sobriety

“The iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back” – Henry Rollins

In the rooms, the saying ‘move a muscle, change a thought’ is something you’ll hear almost on a weekly basis. Many in recovery have taken that literally, by going to the gym. With a threefold disease: body, mind, and spirit it addresses two of those components. There is scientific backing as to the effect that exercise, specifically weight lighting has on mental health.

Multiple studies have been done on how weight lifting is beneficial for those suffering from mental health disorders. For many years the focus was on how running or similar cardio exercise is the route to go for aiding mental wellbeing.

“At the beginning of the year, when I was coming out of a rough experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression, I decided to switch from running regularly to lifting weights. This was despite mountains of evidence pointing to the benefits of aerobic exercise for mental health. The story I told myself was that running is a catabolic activity: It breaks the body down and causes increases in the stress hormone cortisol. Weightlifting, on the other hand, is anabolic: It builds the body up and promotes the release of the feel-good hormone testosterone. I felt broken. I figured trying to build myself up might help.” Brad Stulberg stated in his article for Outside Online.

Why Weight Lifting for Mental Health?

Neither of the meta-analyses (multiple studies not just one-time research) found a precise mechanism by which weightlifting improves our state of mind, but it’s most likely a combination of changes in biology and psychology. Weightlifting is the physical action of “I can’t” when you start it’s hard, and you can’t push yourself to do one more repetition. After you endure the physical and emotional discomfort of it, it slowly becomes I can. You keep pushing yourself, you persevere.

“What seems to be consistent is a person with depression being in a state of I can’t and then seeing some signs of I can. Depression is a lack of hope and anxiety is a lack of confidence.” This is precisely why weightlifting is so useful. Says Kory Stotesbury, a psychiatrist in San Francisco, California.
That’s congruent with the goals of many clinical therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Mental health disorders are prevalent in those suffering from addiction, from anxiety disorders to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who has experienced repeated bouts of generalized anxiety disorder (which goes to show that this stuff affects everyone), says that, for him, weightlifting provides a one-two punch. In the short term, “something about the physical exertion really lifts my mood,” he says. “The longer-term effect is that weightlifting makes me feel empowered, confident, and ready to take on any challenge there may be the rest of the day.’’

Like the feeling of struggling with depression; you’re not sure if you can handle the strain you’re putting on yourself in the gym. When you consistently prove to yourself that you can, it starts to spill into other areas of your life. The effects of weightlifting on mental health are beneficial; it’s not a substitution for therapy or medication in cases of severe depression and anxiety. If you’ve been through treatment, you know how important it is to arm yourself with as many sobriety tools as possible. Working out is precisely that,  a powerful tool in your arsenal.  It’s another tool to have in your toolbox, a healthy coping skill and something that can help you feel better from the inside out. During active addiction, we did whatever we could to get the next one, put that mindset to getting that next set in, to getting to the gym and see how your mood improves.

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