Did you know that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year? That’s a staggering 46.6 million people.1National Institute of Mental Health, “Mental Illness.” NIMH, website. What if you could significantly lower your risk of being part of that statistic with something as simple as building and maintaining muscle?
A growing body of evidence suggests that strong muscles are vital for physical health and equally important for a healthy mind. Building muscle makes you feel happier, more focused, and less stressed.
This article will uncover the science and physiology behind the fascinating and often overlooked connection between muscle health and mental health. Grab a protein shake, and let’s dive into one of the most underappreciated aspects of holistic health: the muscle-mental health connection.
The Biology of Muscles: A Brief Overview
Muscles are biological machines—crafted from bundles of fibers, fueled by the foods you eat, and controlled by the impulses of your nervous system. But don’t mistake them as mere pulleys that help you lift, push, or pull. Muscles are complex structures with roles that go far beyond everyday movement.
Muscles are made up of specialized cells known as muscle fibers. These fibers are bundled in fascicles, which are then grouped together to form the muscle tissue you can see and feel. Each fiber is a powerhouse in itself, packed with tiny protein filaments that contract and expand to create movement.2MacIntosh, B. R., Gardiner, P. F., & McComas, A. J. (2006). Skeletal Muscle: Form and Function. Human Kinetics.
Functions Beyond Movement
Apart from aiding in movement, muscles serve other critical functions. They act as metabolic factories, helping to regulate blood sugar levels. They store essential nutrients like glycogen for quick energy. Some muscles even produce hormones that communicate with other parts of the body. For example, myokines are compounds released by muscles during exercise, which have various beneficial effects on the body, including anti-inflammatory properties.3Pedersen, B. K., & Febbraio, M. A. (2008). Muscle as an endocrine organ: Focus on muscle-derived interleukin-6. Physiological Reviews, 88(4), 1379-1406.
Understanding this multifaceted role of muscles sets the stage for grasping their influence on mental health. It’s not just about being able to bench press your body weight or sprint faster; it’s about the symbiotic relationship between muscle health and your brain.
Muscles, Neurotransmitters, and Hormones: A Partnership
You’ve probably heard the phrase “endorphins make you happy.” While it’s a catchy saying, the truth is far more complex and captivating. Muscles, when exercised, do far more than release endorphins. They kick-start a biochemical cascade that influences various hormones and neurotransmitters, ultimately playing a crucial role in your mental state.
Exercise and Neurotransmitter Production
When you engage in physical activity, especially strength training, your muscles work hard, and in response, your body releases a medley of chemical compounds. Apart from endorphins, which serve as natural painkillers and mood elevators, other neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin get a boost.4Chaouloff, F. (1989). Physical exercise and brain monoamines: A review. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 137(1), 1-13. They regulate mood, help with focus, and are instrumental in feeling pleasure.
Dopamine is often associated with pleasure and reward, making you feel good when you achieve a goal, like hitting a new PR (personal record). Conversely, serotonin is crucial for mood regulation and has a calming, anxiety-reducing effect. A balance between these hormones is essential for mental well-being. What’s fascinating is how muscle activity, especially resistance training, has been shown to improve neurotransmitter balance in a way that enhances mental health.5Strickland, J. C., & Smith, M. A. (2014). The Anxiolytic Effects of Resistance Exercise. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 753.
Exercise and Hormones
Just as your workouts are key to neurotransmitter balance, they play an equal role in optimal hormone production. For example, strength training helps increase testosterone, especially in men, while helping to balance out testosterone and estrogen in women. Sex hormone imbalances are often correlated to depression and anxiety.
Intense exercise sessions also help reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which we’ll delve into below while helping to lower insulin levels.
When you’re pushing through those last few reps of a set, it’s not just your muscles that are getting stronger; your brain chemistry is also getting a beneficial shake-up. If you’ve ever experienced the “runner’s high” or felt unusually upbeat after a rigorous workout, you’re experiencing the muscle-mental health connection firsthand.
The Gut-Muscle-Brain Axis
It may seem odd to discuss the gut when we’re focusing on muscles and the brain, but this triad forms an intricate network that significantly impacts your mental health. Welcome to the concept of the Gut-Muscle-Brain Axis.
Your muscles and gut share more than just a physical space in your body; they interact biochemically. For instance, muscles produce certain proteins during exercise that can positively influence your gut flora, also referred to as the microbiome.6Monda, V., Villano, I., Messina, A., Valenzano, A., Esposito, T., Moscatelli, F., … & Messina, G. (2017). Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2017. A healthier microbiome not only aids in digestion but also contributes to a strong immune system.
Gut Health’s Effect on Mental Well-being
But how does this connect to your brain? The gut is often called the “second brain” because it produces neurotransmitters like serotonin—the neurotransmitter we discussed in the previous section. In fact, about 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut.7Yano, J. M., Yu, K., Donaldson, G. P., Shastri, G. G., Ann, P., Ma, L., … & Hsiao, E. Y. (2015). Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis. Cell, 161(2), 264-276. A balanced microbiome has been associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, illustrating yet another pathway through which muscle health impacts mental well-being.8Foster, J. A., Rinaman, L., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Neurobiology of Stress, 7, 124-136.
By promoting a healthier gut, your muscular system indirectly but significantly contributes to your mental health.
Chronic Stress, Cortisol, and Muscle
Life’s daily stressors are unavoidable, but how you manage them can significantly affect both your mental and physical health. This is where muscles come into play again, but from a slightly different angle: dealing with chronic stress and its hormone, cortisol.
When stress becomes chronic, your adrenal glands release higher levels of cortisol. While cortisol is essential for certain bodily functions, elevated levels over extended periods can have detrimental effects, including catabolism or muscle tissue breakdown.9Hill, E. E., Zack, E., Battaglini, C., Viru, M., Viru, A., & Hackney, A. C. (2008). Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: The intensity threshold effect. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, 31(7), 587-591. That’s right; chronic stress can literally eat away at your hard-earned muscles.
This muscle breakdown can kickstart a vicious cycle. Reduced muscle mass can lead to decreased physical strength and stamina and increased body fat, further increasing stress levels. Additionally, weakened muscles can reduce the effectiveness of one of the most natural stress-relievers: exercise. This cycle wreaks havoc on your mental health, as weaker muscles mean fewer mood-boosting hormones and a less healthy gut, which we’ve established as key factors in mental well-being.10Gerber, M., Brand, S., Herrmann, C., Colledge, F., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., & Pühse, U. (2014). Increased objectively assessed vigorous-intensity exercise is associated with reduced stress, increased mental health and good objective and subjective sleep in young adults. Physiology & Behavior, 135, 17-24.
Never let stress become an excuse to stop exercising. It should be a reason you refuse to miss a workout.
Practical Tips for Leveraging Muscle to Enhance Mental Health
Understanding the theory is interesting, but understanding the effects of muscle on mental health and doing something with that knowledge are two different things.
So, how can you practically use this knowledge?
Make Strength Training Non-Negotiable
You will always have other things demanding your time and attention. If you only work out when you “have the time,” you’ll miss more workouts than you get done.
When you decide to make your workouts non-negotiable, you work them into your calendar no matter what else is going on. That might mean getting up earlier to get it in or fitting it in over lunch or right after work, times that you might not want to use for workouts. But you need to fit them in regardless of whether or not you like to work out at that time.
That said, find a program that offers the kind of programming that fits your lifestyle. For example, you might work out at the gym most of the time, but due to travel requirements, you might need to do some workouts at a hotel or next to your RV. For my VIGOR Training members, I can add travel workouts using body weight and bands to help them maintain their fitness while on vacation or traveling for work.
While bodyweight and band workouts may not be as effective as your gym workouts, they’re far better for your physical and mental health than skipping a week’s worth of workouts.
Strength training is a trigger for muscle growth, but without adequate levels of amino acids, you won’t be able to build and maintain the muscle necessary to enhance mental health.
A second “nonnegotiable” for optimal mental health is eating a high-protein diet. Not only does the higher protein intake support muscle health, but it also offers numerous other metabolic health benefits.
Mindfulness and Stress Management
While building muscle, don’t forget to manage stress actively. Techniques such as meditation, deep-breathing exercises, or even just taking a walk in nature can help lower cortisol levels, preserving both your muscles and your mental health.
Work With a Professional
If you’re serious about leveraging muscle for mental health, work with a professional, either in-person or online. An experienced personal trainer can guide your strength training regimen, while a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist can help optimize your diet for both muscle health and mental well-being.
The relationship between your muscles and your mental health is more interconnected than you may have realized.
Far from being independent systems, they work in tandem, influencing and enhancing one another in a symphony of biochemical interactions. From the hormones and neurotransmitters released during exercise to the role of gut health and even the impact of stress management, your muscles serve as a cornerstone in the foundation of mental well-being.
Remember, every rep counts—not just for your physical appearance or athletic performance but also for your mental resilience and happiness.
Make strength training and a higher-protein diet nonnegotiable. Find a way to deal with your stress. And if you’re not making the progress you’d hoped for, work with a professional who can design an effective program and provide you with the necessary coaching to not only look good on the outside, but feel good on the inside.
At a time when there’s more focus on mental health than ever, people should be busting down the doors to get into their local gym or fitness center. I hope you’re one of them.