Managing Depression with Exercise

Depression shows itself in a number of ways: A bleak outlook—nothing you can will improve your situation. Loss of interest in daily activities, hobbies, social activities, or even sex. An inability to feel joy and pleasure. Appetite or weight changes. Sleep changes; either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours, or oversleeping. Irritability or restlessness, on edge; everything gets on your nerves. Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Feelings of worthlessness. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes. Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things. Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.

Broadly speaking, depression is a chemical disorder that alters the brain’s ability to maintain and balance a normal range of thoughts, emotions, and energy. To maintain these, the brain must have balanced levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. While antidepressants target and  help to maintain these levels, exercise not only raises serotonin levels, but actually improves the brain’s synaptic transmission of serotonin as well as dopamine, the brain’s natural feel-good chemical—a rather inexpensive as well as beneficial alternative to medication. To follow are some tips to get the most of your work out and lesson your depression.

One approach I use for depression with individuals I work with is telling them to simply do the opposite of what the depression is urging them to do. For example, depression encourages isolation; it convinces one to not socialize. Having a bleak outlook, isn’t exactly self-concept booster in terms of reaching out. In reality these negative feelings are unrealistic and simply a bi-product of depression. Yet socializing is a practical, if not empirical means of counteracting these beliefs. Humans naturally respond in accordance to other humans. We take other’s cues as reflections of ourselves, such as one smiles, or laughs at our jokes. Social interactions provide us with responses with which we can counter the negative feelings about ourselves that depression incurs. But full-blown socialization can be quite difficult when depressed, thus going to the gym and interacting with others around common exchanges—working in, talking with the person at the front desk, provides small, but necessary social interactions. Plus, the gym simply gives one a place to be, a sense of belonging, and temporarily breaks the compulsion to isolate. Just taking a book and quietly reading on the Life Cycle provides the benefit of being some place, as well as the good feelings generated by exercise.

Another characteristic of depression is anxiety, a free-floating nervousness, or feeling of dread which manifests in a distractibility. It’s like having multiple legs all vying to go in different directions. You may have the energy and drive to do something, but that something has the accuracy of buckshot. Making time to go to the gym can be a way of taking hold of the anxiety and channeling it’s energy in a productive manner. Exercise provides a diversion from the negative, obsessive thoughts and feelings symptomatic of depression.  We store experiences and their connected emotions in our body. Muscle activity helps discharge old feelings associated with negative events.  As well, 80% of depression sufferers cannot sleep well, and exercise helps to regulate sleep patterns.

There’s no evidence that any exercise is better than another. Aerobic activity, weight lifting or flexibility training, like yoga, all prove effective in treating depression (although Yoga does provide relaxation and mindfulness techniques that are invaluable to overall mental well-being). Simply learning a new skill such as weight training provides a feeling of accomplishment and mastery, which in turn raises one’s confidence, and self esteem. Whatever form of exercise one chooses, it shouldn’t be too difficult and one that is appealing to the individual. Positive outcomes do not depend on achieving physical fitness. Rather, make a conscious goal to exercise for better moods.  Weight loss and physical fitness can be an extra benefit. Plus, if your body starts looking better as a result of exercise this will be a natural boost to your esteem and motivation to continue your routine. And many exercisers report that are able to eat more freely without worries about gaining weight. This also increases pleasure, satisfaction, and a sense of self-control—and with the Holidays upon us (which is reason enough), can help counter feeling fat or guilty as result of the increase in tempting calories.

In some yoga and Buddhist traditions the practice of meditation incorporates Mantras—words or phrases that hold significant meaning or purpose for the individual. We don’t often associate this with curls and shamelessly cranking classic rock, yet we might be at our peak of concentration and receptiveness while doing this. For example, Inhale on the rest (saying: let in strength, vitality), exhale while engaged in the curl (saying: let out bad feelings), bolstered by the yin or yang of power chords. Of course you’ll need to come up with your own mantra, but the brain responds very well to language and can associate messages with feeling good. Also, focusing on breathing oxygenates the muscles while it naturally calms the body and the individual. Not quite having fully evolved from the days when we were chased by saber tooth tigers, breathing deeply lets the body know were safe and out of harm’s way.

Another trick is simply to smile as you work out. The action between the brain’s recognizing pleasurable stimulation and telling the face muscles to smile isn’t necessarily one-way, but rather a two directional-loop; so that by smiling, the muscles then inform, or “trick” the brain into feeling pleasure. So rather than making those painful faces of exertion, which mimic anger, try smiling. If nothing else, you might appear more approachable to others.

Some of us have the good fortune of belonging to gyms that have a sauna. Taking a sauna after a work out is not only a good way to keep muscles loose, but it is also a way in which to pamper ourselves, something that depression doesn’t encourage us to do. The sauna also provides an opportunity to sit quietly with our eyes closed, feeling the contentment of an exercised and relaxed body, perhaps even trying a simple meditation that focuses on the breathing, or in conjunction uses the mantras one used during their work out. It may be a way of checking in with oneself or to prepare for the rest of their day or week.

Whether you have the occasional blues, or suffer a clinical depression, exercise is a positive and productive means to both manage and treat it’s most basic symptoms and feel better about yourself, mentally and physically. Notice the difference you feel about yourself prior and post workout. Obviously though, if symptoms persist, or are a result of unresolved personal or relationship issues, psychotherapy or counseling can help to understand and resolve many of these issues.

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.