Can you bench-press your way out of depression?
The relationship between strength and depressive symptoms.

Travis DixonAbnormal Psychology

Can lifting weights really reduce depression? These studies may be surprising.

The common explanation for increased rates of depression for boys and men is because they’re unwilling to seek help and talk about their feelings. Personally, I have my doubts about this explanation. An alternative explanation is that men are becoming physically weaker, and this is leading to the psychological problems. But what does the research say?

File:Hand dynamometer.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A hand-held dynamometer used for testing grip strength.

Before we get to treatments and interventions, let’s first see if there’s a correlation between strength and depression. A common measure of physical strength is grip strength – how much power you can exert using just your hands. This can be measured with a simple hand-held device. Grip strength has some surprising correlations, including its ability to predict longevity – people with more grip strength tend to live longer. A possible explanation for is that they can prevent falling over, which can be disastrous for elderly people.

Numerous studies have also found correlations between grip strength and depressive symptoms. For instance, in a study of European middle-aged and older adults, Marques et al. (2020) found that “…having more grip strength decreased the odds of depression symptoms by 30% … and 47% … for adults aged 50 to 64 years and 65 years and older, respectively, when compared with those with the lowest grip strength.” Oh et al. (2023) found the same correlation in a sample of over 50,000 participants aged 45 and younger from multiple countries – higher grip strength, lower depression.

While this is strong evidence of a link, these are individual studies. This is where systematic reviews and meta-analyses can be useful. These types of research papers review several studies to find the overall trends. In a separate paper, Marques et al. (2020) published their findings from a meta-analysis and systematic review of 21 studies on grip strength and depression. Their findings offer further evidence for a negative and significant correlation between strength and depressive symptoms, meaning that higher strength is correlated with lower symptoms. Their findings also “…suggest that muscular strength has a positive effect on reducing depressive symptoms…” This means that it’s not just about strength as a protective factor against depression, but it could also be developed as a treatment.

Weight lifting reduces depressive symptoms for men and women.

The effects of exercise and strength training as treatment for depression goes back at least 30 years. In a 1995 study, Palmer et al. ran an experiment with three types of exercise to see how they affect depressive symptoms. They randomly allocated 45 participants to complete a four-week programme in either aerobics, bodybuilding or circuit training. They found that the bodybuilding group had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms (their symptoms reduced by almost 50%).

Since this study, numerous others have been conducted to test the efficacy of resistance exercise (e.g. weight lifting) on depressive symptoms. In their meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials, Gordon et al. (2018) found that “resistance exercise training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms.” They concluded that the available empirical evidence from studies supports the use of exercise training as an additional or even alternative therapy for depression.

But is this true for men and women. Findings from a longitudinal study in Ireland also found a negative correlation between grip strength and depression. Interestingly, the correlation was stronger in females than males (McDowell et al. 2018), suggesting grip strength is a better protector against depression for women compared to men. Other studies have found similar results, suggesting the benefits of weight training aren’t limited to men and might be even more beneficial for women.

The case seems strong – improving your strength can protect you from depression and could be a useful treatment to overcome it. However, we must consider alternative explanations for these correlations between strength and depression. Is it strength that’s the issue, or effort? In one study that found similar correlations between strength and depression, the clinicians who conducted the tests “…. considered participants with depression to have exerted “limited effort” in 70% of cases and those who were not depressed to have exerted limited effort in 18% of cases.” Thus, it might be that the depressive symptoms are affecting how much effort is put into the test, rather than the strength affecting the depression.

That said, this doesn’t mean that strength training won’t be beneficial. It could be that learning to exert effort and accomplish straightforward, measurable goals repeatedly during a weight training programme could improve patients’ efforts. This might generalise to other areas of their life, meaning they could put more effort into other things which might reduce their symptoms. One explanation given for the positive effect of strength training on depression is that it leads to observable changes and helps develop a stronger sense of control over the things in their life. This psychological change is another protective factor against depression.

Smartphones and stoicism are two common culprits for depression, but is it actually more about strength?

Perhaps then we need to reconsider the common narratives surrounding the increasing rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Maybe it’s not smartphones and stoicism to blame, but rather the rising rates of obesity and lack of physical exercise.

Does this mean you should rush out and join a gym? After years of studying and teaching psychology, I’ve come to believe that three things need to be considered when applying psychological knowledge in your own life:

  1. What does the research say?
  2. What does your gut say?
  3. What does your personal experience tell you?

For me personally, I’ve seen enough research to convince me I need to lift weights regularly to protect myself against psychological and physical illness. My gut tells me that we’re designed to do more physically than modern living necessitates, and my experience tells me I feel better when I’m in the gym regularly. Now let’s see what excuses I give myself for missing today’s gym session.


Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, Meyer JD, Lyons M, Herring MP. Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018;75(6):566–576. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0572 (Link)

Marques, A., Gaspar de Matos, M., Henriques-Neto, D., Peralta, M., Gouveia, É. R., Tesler, R., Martins, J., & Gomez-Baya, D. (2020). Grip Strength and Depression Symptoms Among Middle-Age and Older Adults. Mayo Clinic proceedings, 95(10), 2134–2143. (Link)

Marques A, Gomez-Baya D, Peralta M, Frasquilho D, Santos T, Martins J, Ferrari G, Gaspar de Matos M: The Effect of Muscular Strength on Depression Symptoms in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(16):5674. (Link)

Oh, J. W., Kim, S. M., Lee, D., Yon, D. K., Lee, S. W., Smith, L., Kostev, K., Koyanagi, A., Solmi, M., Carvalho, A. F., Shin, J. I., Son, N. H., & Lee, S. (2023). Reduced grip strength potentially indicates depression: Investigating multicontinental databases. Journal of affective disorders, 323, 426–434. (Link)

Palmer, J. A., Palmer, L. K., Michiels, K., & Thigpen, B. (1995). Effects of type of exercise on depression in recovering substance abusers. Perceptual and motor skills80(2), 523–530. (Link)