If you’ve ever spoken to a doctor about feelings of depression (or anxiety,) one of the very first things they will suggest you try is exercise – which is an absolute nightmare for someone with depression. If you can barely get yourself out of bed, how are you supposed to go to the gym? It’s a difficult thing to fathom, and at the time it will seem about as realistic as winning the lottery or going to the moon. But, there’s a reason that they suggest it, and I can tell you firsthand that exercise has been instrumental in helping me cope with and live with my depression and anxiety. (I used to roll my eyes at people that would claim this, so if you’re rolling your eyes right now, I totally feel you.)
WHY EXERCISE IMPROVES DEPRESSION
Alright, let’s start with why. Why do doctors suggest exercise to improve your mental health? Because research has proven exercise to be an effective way to treat depression. How so? I’m going to let Dr. Michael Craig Miller (assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard) handle this one:
To read more (since I’m not a Doctor – shocking I know): https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression
Okay, so now that we know doctors aren’t just screwing with us, how do you start exercising with depression? I don’t have a crystal clear answer for this one. What I can tell you, is that I wholeheartedly understand why it seems inconceivable to be able to exercise when battling depression. Living with depression can be difficult enough as it is, and in the deepest moments of my depression, getting out of bed and showering simply wasn’t an option. Leaving the house wasn’t an option. Doing anything productive seemed like it just wasn’t an option. So, if you’re currently feeling that way, your feelings are valid, they are real, and you’re not a “failure” for not being able to jump out of bed and head to the gym at 5am like some people do. And the good news is that you don’t have to jump out of bed at 5am. You don’t even have to go to the gym. Small steps are the best, and most plausible way to get started.
APPROACH IT WITH AN OPEN MIND
First and foremost, try to approach exercise with an open mind. If you go into it thinking “This won’t help me, I’m going to be depressed forever,” then it likely won’t be helpful for you. Approach it with an open mind, and with the hope that it could, at least in some very small way, help to relieve some of your depressive symptoms (physical, mental, and emotional.) If there’s a chance that exercise could help to improve your depression (and there’s actually a very considerable chance) then it’s worth a shot, right? Go into it knowing that it could be helpful, and that you won’t know unless you try.
EASE INTO IT
When I decided that I was going to start exercising, with the hope that I would lose weight while improving my depression and anxiety, I told myself to take things one step at a time. And that’s what I’m going to tell you. Living with depression can make simple tasks seem impossible, so going to the gym 7 days a week probably isn’t realistic. And that’s perfectly okay, because you don’t need to. Aim to workout 2 to 3 days a week, for 30 to 45 minutes at a time. If that sounds like too much, aim for 20 minutes. You don’t need to go to a gym, you don’t need to attend fitness classes, you can do all of your working out at home. Walking is an excellent place to start, as research has shown that spending time outside (hello Vitamin D) can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. So, if you feel like you’re able to get out of the house, walking is a great form of exercise to start with. If you don’t feel like you’re ready to leave the house, that’s okay too, start with simple workouts at home using minimal equipment. The idea is to start slowly, and gradually incorporate exercise into your weekly routine.
GIVE YOURSELF CREDIT
I won’t lie to you, in the beginning it will be difficult. It will take all of your will to convince yourself to do it. It will take nearly everything in you to get out of bed, change into your clothes, and workout. It is far easier said than it is done, and you may really struggle in the beginning. However, give yourself credit for even making the effort. Give yourself credit for getting out of bed and exercising, even if it’s for as little as 15 minutes. It’s not easy, but you’re doing it. And the more that you do it, the easier it will become. I promise you that.
SOMETIMES YOUR MIND WILL PLAY TRICKS ON YOU
If you’ve ever experienced depression, you know that your mind can be your own worst enemy. Battling your mind is no easy task – it can be completely exhausting and defeating, and some days it may feel like a never ending battle. When it comes to exercising, your mind will tell you that you can’t do it, or that’s it pointless to try. It may tell you that the exercise can’t help you, or that nothing can ever help you to feel better. The important thing to remember is that we don’t have to believe everything that our minds tell us. Our mind is a powerful tool, but it’s not always right. Our thoughts are not always concrete facts. And sometimes the things that we tell ourselves could not be further from the truth. So when that sneaky voice tries to convince you that your efforts are all for nothing, or that you’re incapable of healing, remember that just because it may feel true, that doesn’t make it true. And it’s okay to tell your mind to f*ck off sometimes.
IT WILL TAKE TIME
Exercise will not instantly improve your depression, it will take some time. Much like medication (it can take 4-6 weeks to feel the full effects of an antidepressant), it will take time and consistency before you feel an improvement. However, if you’re consistent you will in time feel (at very least) slightly better. You may have more energy, you may feel a little calmer, you may sleep better, you may feel a sense of a accomplishment (a feeling that can be hard to come by in a state of depression), you may feel your mood improve, you may feel a slight sense of hope, you may feel more at ease having developed a sense of routine. There are so many ways in which exercise can help to alleviate both the mental and physical symptoms of depression. So, as best as you can, really try to stick with it and see it through, because the benefits will come in time.
VALUE MENTAL IMPROVEMENTS OVER PHYSICAL IMPROVEMENTS
Exercise isn’t just about physical change or improvements, it’s also about mental improvements. It’s so easy to get caught up in the physical or aesthetic aspect of exercise and weight loss. All too often we focus on how many pounds or inches we’ve lost, instead of on the mental or emotional benefits that we have gained. Though exercise has of course changed my physical appearance and physical ability, I can genuinely say that some of the greatest benefits have been mental. Exercise has improved my anxiety beyond belief, even on the days when I feel the most anxious, after a workout I immediately feel a sense of calm. My depression has also improved in ways that I could have never imagined, I feel like the fog has been lifted. My mind feels clearer, I feel far more optimistic and hopeful, and my mood has improved considerably since incorporating exercise into my daily/weekly routine.
Instead of getting caught up in trying to lose weight, exercise for the mental improvements. Exercise because you want to FEEL better. Exercise because you want your mind to feel clearer. Exercise because you want your depression and anxiety to improve. Look at exercise as something that can improve your mind, instead of being something that solely improves your physical body. While exercise can of course do both, what matters most right now is improving the way that you FEEL, not the way that you look.
IF YOU WOULDN’T SAY IT TO A FRIEND, DON’T SAY IT TO YOURSELF
Self-deprecating and self-loathing dialogue is incredibly powerful, but for all the wrong reasons. At one point or another, we all deal with negative self-talk. However, a depressed mind can really take the self-criticism and self-loathing to an entirely new and dangerous level. I have said things to and about myself that I would not say to my own worst enemy. In fact, self-deprecating thoughts have all too often turned me into my own worst enemy. While it can take some time to learn to speak kindly to yourself, here’s a simple rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, you shouldn’t say it to yourself. That means that if you wouldn’t call your best friend fat, or lazy, or hopeless, then you sure as hell shouldn’t say those things to yourself. This journey is difficult enough as it is, please don’t make it even harder on yourself.
A BAD OR MISSED WORKOUT DOESN’T MAKE YOU A FAILURE
Things are not always going to go as planned, you may have days where working out just isn’t plausible, or you may have a workout that goes so poorly you feel you would have been better off without it. And that’s okay, because you’re human and these things happen. Missing a workout doesn’t make you a failure. Being unable to get out of bed some days doesn’t make you a failure. Setting out to run only to realize that the most you can manage is a walk, doesn’t make you a failure. Do what you can, and when you can’t do it, that’s okay. It doesn’t make you a failure, it just makes you human.
USE EXERCISE IN ADDITION TO OTHER TREATMENT
While exercise can be fantastic for improving depression, it is NOT a replacement for medication or therapy. There is no one method of treating depression, as different things work for different people. The idea is to find (with help from your doctor, therapist, or other healthcare provider) what plan of action works best for you. For me, therapy, medication, and exercise have all played a critical role in improving my depression and providing me with a feeling of stability. The end goal for anyone suffering from depression is to feel better, and if that requires medication, therapy, exercise, or any other means of treatment, there is NO shame to be had in that. It’s always about doing what works best for YOU. So while exercise can absolutely help improve your mental and emotional well-being, it isn’t necessarily a replacement for medication, therapy, or other treatment. Use exercise in addition to your other treatment.
Depression is something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. So, if you’re currently struggling, please know that you’re not alone, though you may feel that you are. I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, and some days I still live it. I understand the feeling, I understand the struggle, I know it all too well. If you ever need to reach out to someone, I am always here to listen and to talk. Always feel free to email me, or direct message me. Sending love your way, today and always.