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What Your Upper Body Strength Says About Your Mental Health

A new study suggests that being able to display physical strength in the face of social conflict might make guys less depressed. What could go wrong?

Forget eating an apple a day. Crushing an apple a day with your bare hands might be the new method of keeping the doctor — or at the very least, therapist — away, because recent research suggests that grip strength might be linked with lower depression rates. Likewise, scientists suspect this could help partially explain why twice as many women experience depression as men. 

“There is a large sex difference in depression, with females at greater risk than males, and there is also a large sex difference in upper body strength, with females having much lower strength than males,” study co-author Edward Hagen, a professor of evolutionary anthropology, tells me. Hagen and his team’s findings, published in the journal Evolution, Medicine & Public Health, pose the question, “Could the large sex difference in upper body strength help explain the large sex difference in depression?”

It might sound like a testosterone-induced theory fit for a segment on The Joe Rogan Experience, but Hagen insists the inspiration for his research was far from pseudoscience. In fact, his intention was to test the outcome of a 2016 study that indicated that lower upper body strength was indeed linked with a higher risk of depression. To do so, he and his team analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which included a 9-item questionnaire to screen for depressive symptoms among 8,576 people. Participants also had their grip strength measured.

They found that higher grip strength was associated with lower depression symptoms, most notably when it came to thoughts about suicide and feeling down. Hagen speculates that the reason why isn’t as simple as physical health being linked with mental health, but how social conflict is negotiated and handled. Whether it’s childhood trauma, abuse from a past relationship or some other form of adversity, “there’s considerable evidence that depression involves various forms of social conflict,” Hagen explains, noting that there’s also evidence that the more upper body strength a person has, the more likely they are to come out on top in a dispute. 

If this is true, strength might be a protective factor against depression because other people are less likely to try to take advantage of you or mess with you in some way. However, Hagen is careful to not explicitly recommend guys swap out therapy for another trip to the gym. “It’s possible that by working out and increasing their upper body strength, men could increase their confidence in standing up for themselves, which might reduce their risk of depression,” he tells me. “On the other hand, it might also increase the risk that some men would use violence, or threats of violence, to intimidate others.”

As for some anecdotal evidence, I turned to MEL strength correspondent Oliver Lee Bateman, a man who has entered a number grip-strength competitions over the years and who can, in fact, crush an apple with his bare hands. To him, grip strength isn’t a convincing indicator of overall mental health, but more of a “proxy for testosterone, which has some effect on mood and well-being, but testosterone alone can’t treat depression for all men.” 

Not to mention, he adds, “This doesn’t mean grip is the cause of any of this either, merely an incidental effect.” In the end, depression is a systemic issue, and grip strength is just one of many ways to test if our system is working the way it should be, Bateman speculates.

But hey, at least one of the symptoms now seems to be literally within our grasp.