In last week’s article, The FIREman talked about the challenge of depression.
What if there were a medical intervention more effective than anti-depressant drugs? What if it also worked on low level anxiety? What if it actually made you more confident? Not to mention better looking.
Well it turns out there is. It’s called “exercise”. Studies suggest that exercise improves your mental health as much as antidepressants…but without harmful side effects. Oh, and its free!
Until recently, my exercise was based on running and cycling. These endurance sports taught me what “no pain, no gain” felt like and I applied this to pursuing financial independence.
The beauty of exercise is that you learn what it feels like to push through when things feel tough. I couldn’t have held down my job nor got to FI without the resilience training and the stress relief that I got from exercise. Some things you only learn via doing and experiencing.
I still do 5k Park Runs and cycle but these days I use my bike as a way to get around town rather than for serious exercise. That’s because for the last year or so, I’ve been doing strength training….which I started via the “gateway drug” of Body Pump (weights set to banging tunez).
I now find weight training addictive…its a healthy way to spend time and helps ensure I’m never bored. Anyone fretting about what to do after FI should try this. Firstly, it’s a great way to spend time while you figure out what’s next. And second, when you lift, you stop fretting.
The brain and the body form a single organic system. The state of your body affects how you think and feel. Weight training changes your thoughts and feelings as well as your physiology. It makes you braver and more confident. Sceptical? Turn off the TV and try it!
Today’s post is from PD Mangan’s excellent book Muscle Up. I found PD Mangan (a biologist by training, now a fitness author and coach) on Twitter. His followers include some of the smartest people on the planet.
Oh and he’s 63 years old and ripped.
Other lifestyle factors such as diet and sleep are important but for many people the single best thing they could do for their health is to start exercising.
Exercise works by acting as a stress which signals the body to increase its capacity to perform at a high level. In this way, the immune system, cardiorespiratory fitness, insulin sensitivity and other aspects of metabolic health, detoxifying enzymes and other systems all improve in function. However, the intensity of the exercise must rise above a certain threshold before it causes beneficial effects.
The type of exercise almost universally recommended by mainstream health authorities over the the past several decades has been steady state aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, treadmills, stairstepper machines) otherwise known as “cardio”.
Strength training (or weightlifting) has been seen generally as the province of muscle-obsessed bodybuilders. Fortunately, this is beginning to change as doctors and others in health care understand its benefits.
More people are starting to realise that weightlifting is the best way to improve body composition: adding muscle and losing fat. It helps prevent cancer, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, sarcopenia (age related muscle wasting), heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.
Strength training also increases testosterone, especially in men. Testosterone is a hormone that makes men what they are: it gives them secondary sex characteristics of a deep voice, larger muscles and it affects behaviour too. Women also have testosterone, but men have about ten times as much.
Testosterone (T for short) is also responsible for the sex drive. As men age, T levels almost invariably decline, leading to symptoms such as low sex drive, muscular weakness, fatigue and depression. Some “exceptionally healthy” men appear not to experience any decline in T, which questions whether a decline in T is really due to age or whether other factors are more important, such as overall health, obesity, smoking, alcohol use etc.
Parallel to the decline in T seen in men as they age is a long-term declining trend in T levels in all men.
An average young man of 20 will today have lower T levels than an average 20 year old man of even a few decades ago. Whereas a man a generation ago may have had a T level of 500, now it may be more like 400, a 20% drop. This phenomenon is seen in both the U.S. and in Europe.
A number of factors have been implicated in this decline, such as obesity and environmental pollutants, including endocrine disruptors which are estrogen-like compounds that stick around in the environment a long time. Endocrine disruptors can unfortunately be found in many common consumer personal care products such as soaps, shampoos and deodorants, as well as in packaging and plastics. They accumulate with repeated exposure.
Lower levels of T can have serious health effects, including increased cardiovascular disease and worse mental health, including depression. A man with low T doesn’t feel or in many cases look as masculine as a man with normal levels and neither does he perform as well sexually or have as high a sex drive.
What if there were a simple solution to low T, would you be interested? What if a straightforward intervention that costs little or nothing could raise your T levels, and at the same time improve your overall health, make you look better and give you more confidence?
As you may have guessed, the answer is resistance training (lifting weights) which has a robust effect in raising T levels, as well as increasing muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness and decreasing depression.
Resistance training is the best exercise for combating obesity, since muscular strength and muscle mass have a strong inverse correlation with obesity and with the illnesses that accompany it. And obesity is strongly associated with low testosterone. Therefore to treat both obesity and raise low T levels, lift weights.
Low T seen in obesity is associated with insulin resistance and development of the metabolic syndrome which is the prelude to type 2 diabetes. In turn, this increases the incidence of cardiovascular disease and erectile dysfunction.
In short, if you are a man and obese, you can expect illness to come calling, partly due to T levels that are lower than in lean men. Low sexual desire and erectile dysfunction are also associated with low T.
Mostly, the effects of resistance training on T levels seems to be attributable to a change in body composition: less fat and more muscle. The difference in T levels between strength trainers and runners could have much to do with their respective body types: muscular vs skinny.
Almost any type of exercise can help fight depression. People who exercise regularly have lower rates of depression and anxiety. If I had one piece of advice to give to anyone feeling blue, it would be to exercise, and especially, train with weights.
Little actual research has been done on the effect of resistance training and how it affects personality, but going by my own experience as well as that of many others I’ve talked to, becoming proficient at lifting weights and developing a better body profoundly increases self-esteem and confidence.
The emotions function as a sensor that interprets to us how we should react to certain events, including events inside the body. Think of your state of mind when you’re ill: you feel down, don’t want to do anything much. This is sickness behaviour which is associated with depression. Depressed people may feel fatigued, unmotivated and have many physical symptoms of illness.
Ill health is strongly associated with depressed mood…so keeping oneself healthy is a good first step in avoiding depression and anxiety.
For men especially, weightlifting has a tremendous positive effect on confidence and feelings of well-being. Many of my friends are, like myself, almost addicted to lifting. Much of this can be attributed to the instantaneous mood lift that a bout of hard weightlifting gives.
Building muscle powerfully boosts self-confidence. People begin to look at you in a new light, they see you as more worthy of respect. More muscular men are of course seen as more masculine, and this means that a man who lifts becomes more attractive to women. In fact, if a man came to me for advice on how to make himself more attractive to women, the first thing I’d tell him is to get into the gym and start lifting.
The overweight and obese can have low self-esteem and self-confidence. It seems that many obese people feel ashamed of the way they look, and you can imagine how such a feeling of inner shame affects one’s interactions with other people and the world.
I myself was somewhat overweight when I was a teenager and when I lost the weight through a combination of weightlifting and diet, my self-confidence went way up and my interactions with girls became much more successful. Losing fat and gaining muscle through strength training provide a potent boost to one’s mental outlook.
Do women really like muscular bodies in their men? Obfuscating this question is the fact that the reaction of many women to the proptypical Mr Universe contestant is “no thanks”. But those guys are at the extreme end of a spectrum and its unlikely that men will come to look like that without years of daily hard work in the gym along with some performance enhancing drugs. But as for the enhanced muscularity and lower body fat that men will get when they lift weights, yes, women do like that.
Many boys, especially teenagers, become interested in lifting weights and adding muscle as part of their rite of passage into manhood. Hopefully, many of them will retain their gym habits for life.
But unfortunately, there’s a movement afoot to discourage boys and young men from strength training. Yes, I find it hard to believe too, but apparently some people believe that weightlifting encourages something called “toxic masculinity” in boys and men.
In contrast, I believe that lifting weights will do nothing but good for boys and young men. They will improve their bodies and health, develop more self-confidence and gain camaraderie with other boys and men in their situation.
What about weightlifting and women?
Strength training can have the same good effects on women in terms of mood and self-confidence that they have for men. Gaining muscle is more difficult for women but the fat loss that comes from strength training will benefit them greatly.
Weightlifting should accompany weight loss efforts or you risk losing muscle which is deleterious for health. Weightlifting has the best record of any exercise for fat loss and for keeping waist circumference low and this is one of the best ways to improve one’s appearance and get the self-confidence that goes with it.
One of the biggest roadblocks for anyone contemplating a strength training program is lack of knowledge as to where to begin. Some people think that its too complicated and that if its not done right its better not done at all. But in reality you can learn how to do it in very little time and the techniques will come easy.
Finally, a further barrier is psychological and it has to do with some of the guys in the gym: in bodybuilding parlance “the bros”. In any gym, there are going to be some standout bodybuilders; big guys who lift heavy weights, grunt and groan, drop their weights with a loud crash and who sometimes look intimidating at least to “normal” people.
In reality, most of these guys are friendly and welcoming. They’re happy to see new faces in the weight room and if you need help or advice are usually more than willing to lend a hand. So don’t let them stop you from getting in there, mixing it up with them and lifting weights.
- Testosterone gives men their secondary sex characteristics as well as sex drive and function
- Testosterone declines with age unless you’re “exceptionally healthy”
- There’s a long-term decline in testosterone levels among men
- Resistance training can increase testosterone levels
- Weightlifting instils confidence and self-esteem and makes men and women more attractive
- Don’t worry about the bros
For more on this subject, the book Muscle Up is excellent and available on Amazon.