Get moving to fight depression

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on July 13, 2012

Exercise can help relieve depressionMy husband and I live with five dogs, and for a brief spell almost 10 years ago, there were actually seven of those four-legged creatures (plus one cat) under our roof. I’m the sort of person who loves to get e-mailed pictures of cute doggies . . . and who has been known to rescue an endangered puppy.

But there’s one kind of canine I simply can’t stand.

The “black dog” that Winston Churchill knew so intimately.

I’m talking about depression–the one “dog” I hate having in my life.

If you’ve ever had that life-sucking, joy-draining beast on your back, you know what I’m talking about.

I’m going to get personal for a minute and say that depression and I are old adversaries. I’ve grappled with that dog, off and on, since I was 14 years old.

And that’s not so unusual. At any given time, 9 percent of Americans are depressed–including 4 percent who are struggling with major depression. The incidence is much higher among women, up to 30 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Much more is known today about depression than when I was a teenager. And thank God there are now numerous medications that can help relieve depression.

But believe it or not, studies have repeatedly shown that exercise can also make a profound difference in mood disorders.

I’m not saying that if you exercise you can just throw away your Prozac. I am saying that whether or not you’re taking medication, adding even a small amount of movement to your routine can help.

In my own life, the times when I’m faithful to my exercise regimen are the times when I feel like “the real me.” I’m energetic, optimistic, and emotionally on an even keel.

If I fall off the exercise wagon, for whatever reason, that black dog comes sneaking back.

OK, I know what you might be thinking–that when you’re so depressed you can hardly get off the couch, it’s impossible to imagine going to the gym.

I get that.

Fortunately, you don’t need anything that rigorous to start doing yourself some good. And it’s much, much better to do anything than nothing.

Dr. Jim Phelps, the author of Why Am I Still Depressed? (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and creator of the excellent psycheducation.org website, points out that despite their depression, “most people can still walk.”

On his site, he shares the recommendation of Dr. Gary Sachs, leader of the Harvard Bipolar Program: “Here’s your exercise program: go to the door, look at your watch. Walk 7.5 minutes in any direction, then turn around and walk home. Do that five days a week at least.”

Could you do that if you had faith it would help relieve your depression?

Here’s what one woman (quoted on Dr. Phelps’s website) had to say about making the effort: “It is very difficult to walk etc. when one is suffering depression, but I have forced myself out the door many times, knowing from experience I will feel better when I return home.”

And actually, any form of cardio or strength training is probably going to be equally effective in improving mood, according to The Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Here’s a quote from the publication: “Many reviews and meta-analyses show that regular physical activity is correlated with improvement in clinical depression and anxiety, mild to moderate depressive symptoms, insomnia, and resilience under stress. People who become or remain physically fit or active are less likely to develop clinical depression.”

I’m just one example–but I’m living proof that a regular exercise regime can make a night and day difference in your quality of life.

If you’re being hounded by that black dog, give exercise a try. Begin with baby steps. Ask a friend to go with you. Just start.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lisa
Twitter: lisaeirene
July 13, 2012 at 11:36 am

I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was 14 and have tried many of the medications out there (some worked better than others). Honestly, what worked the BEST was losing 100 pounds and creating a consistent exercise routine. Exercise made me so happy! The endorphins, the healthy benefits, it all made me feel so much better. I firmly believe exercise and diet CAN cure most depressions.

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2 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Lisa–

So glad to “hear” you say this–and of course, I totally agree! I would exercise for the mental-health benefits alone even working out did me no other good.

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3 Big Vanilla Athletic Club
Twitter: bigvanilla1
July 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Exercise increases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine production in your brain, which are the feel-good chemicals. We always tell our members to remember that exercise benefits more than just their bodies – it’s great for their moods too!

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4 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 13, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Absolutely! Thanks for commenting.

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5 Pamela Hernandez July 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Thank you for sharing this story. I am going to share with one of my clients who is fighting depression in her life.

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6 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm

I hope the post (and the comments others have made) will help!

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7 Shira July 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm

What a terrific, well-written post! Twenty years ago I started working with a therapist who thought I might need meds to help with feelings of depression that impacted so many others in my family. Instead, I turned to journaliing and exercise, starting on the path that would lead to my long-term weight loss. Because of my regular commitment to exercise, really move in some way every day, my moods have stayed relatively constant as well. I hope many people reading this post will realize that exercise is just as much for your mind and spirit as it is for your body!

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8 Suzanne
Twitter: WorkoutNirvana
July 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I’m glad you shared this Mary. I’m a huge proponent as exercise for fighting depression and anxiety. Depression runs in my family and certainly affected me throughout my life until I found regular exercise. Today I rarely feel depressed for more than a few hours or a day. If I do, I know the BEST thing I can do is to work out.

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9 Jane Hatton
Twitter: evenbreak
July 15, 2012 at 5:07 am

In previous times in my life I’ve found exercise great for lifting my mood. I would do regular hydrotherapy exercises in a local pool. Often I was too low to want to bother, but every time I made myself I was really glad I had, and felt much better on the way back than I had on the way there.

Unfortunately, my disability has worsened to the point where I’m unable to exercise at all, and so it’s no longer an option. Exercise is good for so many things – weight loss, muscle toning, mental health – it’s a pity it can’t be bottled for the many of us that simply can’t exercise.

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10 Deepa July 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

Thank you so much for posting this. Having suffered from some form of anxiety/depression since I was a little girl, I too can attest to the power of a good workout. All the advice you have is perfect. Thanks.

Deepa

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11 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 20, 2012 at 8:53 am

Deepa, thank you!

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12 Chris
Twitter: shinerweb
July 18, 2012 at 3:35 am

As someone who suffers from Chronic Pain (for the last 11 years) and who has battled depression as a result, I no longer have to rely on any medication but rely on exercise and wait for it, singing… I guess it is exercising the vocal chords, so is a form of exercise. I’d recommend joining a local choir or anywhere you can sing your heart out. The endorphins rush from singing in a group can be amazing, and get this, you don’t even have to be able to sing… Just being with other people singing helps…
There are some like me who cannot do much physical exercise, so just remember there are plenty of other forms of exercise and pretty much all of them will help….
I’m off to take my dog for a walk…

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13 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
July 20, 2012 at 8:52 am

Chris, I love your advice about singing! I’m a singer too, and you’re absolutely right—it’s hard to stay down when you’re making music. Thanks for commenting.

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14 Linda Mattacks
Twitter: Linda_Mattacks
August 8, 2012 at 10:32 am

Hi Mary

There are various times in our lives when we’re likely to be more prone to depression, and I’m guessing that most of them (if not all) involve stress.

One of the best and most immediate pick me upsI’ve found is (similar to Chris’ answer but – in my case – kinder to the neighbours) putting on some favourite music and dancing round the room like an absolute loon! If you don’t have the music you fancy do a search on Youtube and I bet you’ll get something that literally starts you moving in a good way in moments. nd replay it as many times as you like – spoil yourself!

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