Two major symptoms of depression include fatigue and lack of motivation. Countless studies prove that exercise benefits those suffering from this illness. But, how can you manage the exercise required when it’s a struggle just to get out of bed …
Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Eat, Pray, Love, personifies depression. “He settles into my favorite chair, puts his feet on my table, and lights a cigar, filling the place with his awful smoke.” This sense of being overcome, smothered in a stench, poetically describes the way depression can blanket over one’s entire being. Trying to “snap out of it” is almost a physical impossibility. There is more at work here than a bad day, a sad turn of events, or moody behavior. Its root is chemical, and it needs to be treated like any other illness.
Exercise as a Treatment
Medical studies indicate the helpful impact fitness has on an individual suffering from depression. A 2007 placebo-controlled trial out of Duke University found exercise may be as effective in treating depression as a big-name antidepressant medication. Exercise produces endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones. It also influences the circulation of neurotransmitters in the brain in a way similar to antidepressant medication.
Additionally, exercise decreases stress levels and increases overall health and well-being. In this respect, it eliminates one more thing over which to be depressed. Consistent exercise can also help build an immunity to stress, so you suffer less anxiety and experience more peace-of-mind. For more on ways exercise reduces stress, see “Exercise for Stress Relief” at www.fitnessandwellnessnews.com (September 17, 201).
Accomplishing a workout in a group atmosphere creates a sense of community. There is a strong theory that recommends being in the company of happy people to be happy yourself. Surround yourself by others who are working to improve their lifestyle and you can be inspired. A shoulder to cry on can be helpful in the moment; however, a pair of friendly feet to run with on the treadmill can provide a long-term lift.
Workouts in a social setting help connect you with a support network. By sharing a healthy experience in the company of others, you also gain an opportunity to develop a renewed sense of self. Results are twofold: Setting and accomplishing fitness goals builds self-confidence while improving body image.
Information gathered from many studies reports that exercise provides an immediate boost as well as long-term relief for those suffering from depression and anxiety, similar to that offered by medication and talk therapy. There is discussion in mental health circles about future prescriptions actually being written for exercise when treating depression. The idea is for them to indicate specific “dosages” and fitness programs.
More credence is given to the mind-body connection. Its ever-improving reputation now includes the potential to minimize the need for medication and psychotherapy. Although these treatments are effective, their side-effects, expense, and inconvenience are the main reasons many choose to deal with depression alone. In short-term studies, researchers are finding people show equal compliance to an exercise regimen as they do medication. The immediate boost helps long-term adherence to exercise unlike a trial period with drugs.
How to Get Started
In the time it takes for medication or talk therapy to help, you could be enjoying a lighter spirit. Taking the initial step is often challenging, whether swallowing the first antidepressant pill, scheduling the introductory therapy session, or starting a consistent exercise routine. Each option requires soul searching, confronting your fears, and acknowledging your situation.
Start slowly, when incorporating fitness into your treatment plan. Small amounts of physical activity can increase mental and physical energy. It may help to trick yourself, perhaps a little detour en route to Wawa: “I’ll just stop at the Center to check out a Group Fitness class. I probably won’t stay. I only want to watch for a few minutes and get the schedule.”
Sure, you can find class descriptions and schedules on the Center’s Web site, but making the effort to get out may take you a step farther. You could find yourself experimenting on the Exercise Floor or participating in a class, if only briefly. This thought process helps diminish feelings of being overwhelmed that often accompany depression and prohibit action. Before your brain registers it, you are already involved and making progress.
Follow your heart, and choose activities you enjoy. With a heavy mental outlook, tasks often become a chore. Make sure your workout incorporates your favorites. If you’re aquatic by nature, try water workouts; if pumping iron is a release for you, talk with a personal trainer. Friends frequently share similar interests. Invite a friend to join you. S/he can motivate you on days you’re struggling. Consider discussing your condition with a personal trainer or Group Fitness instructor who can provide support, inspiration, and appropriate fitness direction.
Commit to an overall healthier lifestyle, with small changes that can have a big impact. Lack of sleep is known to be directly related to episodes of depression. Studies show the impact that quality and quantity of sleep has on our emotions. Make an effort to get more rest. Depression sometimes interferes with the ability to sleep. Physical activity can lessen this symptom while you work on getting the depression under control.
You are what you eat, so choose healthy foods. Focus on meals that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Poor diets, particularly ones high in sugar, can contribute to depression. Proper nutrition can boost lagging energy levels and propel you into activity. Limit consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Both have been found indirectly linked to depression. Long-term alcohol consumption can interfere with levels of serotonin and other brain chemicals responsible for mood. Caffeine can affect sleep patterns, which can leave one prone to depression.
Keep It Going
Take time to acknowledge your accomplishments. A short session on the Exercise Floor is big progress for someone struggling to complete daily tasks. Reward yourself with a treat that makes you feel good. Be sure the treat is a healthy one that will move you along your journey to a happier outlook. Don’t return to a negative habit you developed when self-medicating. Cigarette smoking or costly shopping sprees can be a setback, and may intensify feelings of guilt and failure.
Encourage yourself to fit more activity into your everyday routine. Use stairs instead of the elevator, walk when possible during your commute around town, and stretch frequently throughout the day. These small decisions to help yourself increase energy level and allow you to feel more in control.
Acknowledge that you aren’t alone. Many celebrities are revealing their own mental health issues. In an effort to reduce the stigma some sadly associate with mental disorders, stars such as actor Joe Pantoliano (“The Sopranos”) are becoming activists on the topic.
Through Joe’s foundation, No Kidding, Me Too, he strives to have mental illness regarded as any other chronic disease. He shared in a HealthMonitor interview, “I learned that my disease is genetic, and that I have to see my doctor regularly, take my medication, eat right, and do yoga. As a result, I’ve never felt better.”
Joe wants others to consider talking about mental illness as “trendy, cool, and sexy.” With one in four individuals in the United States suffering from mental illness at some point in life, don’t be ashamed to seek the help you need. If that doesn’t motivate you to find treatment, this might: One in five family members and friends are touched by it as well. You don’t suffer depression alone.
There is such a variety of workouts. High-intensity workouts give a burst of feel-good hormones; low-intensity can help you relax and reconnect your mind, body, and spirit. Most find relief from exercise programs that combine both fitness methods.
For information on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), please see “Exercise Your Way to Happiness (even when it’s dark at dinnertime)” at www.fitnessandwellnessnews.com (November 13, 2009). With shorter days ahead, helpful tips await those who suffer seasonal depressive symptoms.
When the iron-laden blanket of depression nestles you under, a well-exercised body can help lift the weight, in countless ways.
“A Healthy Lifestyle Helps Depression,” by Nancy Schimelpfening at www.about.com.
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 48.
“Exercise and Depression: How to Get up and Get Moving,” by Paige Waehner at www.about.com.
“Experts: Exercise Can Ease Anxiety,” by Kim Painter, Asbury Park Press, April 26, 2010.
“Feel a Little Depressed? Try Sweating the Small Stuff,” by George Conway, My Community Trend.
“How to Beat Depression without Prescription Drugs,” by Nancy Schimelpfening at www.about.com.
“How to Exercise When You Have Depression,” by Nancy Schimelpfening at www.about.com.
“Joey Pants: Got Mental Dis-ease?” by Kathy Gilligan, HealthMonitor at Home, vol. 2, no. 4, summer 2010.
Rainy Day Blues (introduction photo): www.flickr.com/photos/mkumm/3759108137/