Exercise and Depression - Does it Help?
Your physician has just diagnosed you with clinical depression. Doc wants you to take antidepressants as well as to go take a hike - or do other physical activity.
You’re totally depressed and he thinks you want to go galavanting around your neighborhood hiking, or do stuff at the gym? Whose the mentally unstable one in this convo?
Related - Fighting Social Anxiety With Exercise
Back in the day, I remember my mother yelling at us kids to go out and play so that we wouldn’t be “mopey” when we grew up. I never understood her reasoning; I thought she just wanted us kids out of her hair.
She may have known what she was talking about.
Your brain is a complex organ that is made up of neurons, neurotransmitters, and chemicals that have to stay balanced in order to function correctly.
The main cause of depression is the decrease of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. When there is less of these neurotransmitters or there is less uptake of them, it's like your senses get dulled.
If you are depressed, likely you don’t feel like showering or getting out of bed and life isn’t something to look forward to.
So basically you are a stinky mess of a person who isn’t too pleasant to be around. Others shun you due to your lack of basic hygiene and your cantankerous ways. Don’t get depressed about it (do you like what I did there) - there is one thing you can do that doesn’t involve taking any medication at all.
Exercising is pretty much the last thing on earth you want to do... I get it.
Here are some tips on why exercise may help you feel less depressed:
Endorphins get you high. Can you say, “Endorphins?” Yes, please! It's like injecting heroin into your veins.
I think. I mean, I have never done it. I am just saying... If it's anywhere near the euphoria you get from running a marathon then bring it on!
Endorphins are released by the pituitary in the brain. During periods of extreme exercise, pain, sex, and stress they are released.
So, let me get this straight - exercise is like sex? Well, yes. I am sure if the physician prescribed sex, it may have been easier to make that happen than a full marathon, but still.
You should exercise hard. This may be because endorphins are released during a persons stress response. So it makes sense that your body has to be in freak-out mode before it will give up the juice, i.e., the endorphin high.
Now, this isn’t to say if you are incapacitated you should go out and do high-intensity training. Go do training that is hard for you. If a brisk walk is hard for you, then you may very well release endorphins.
Exercise is a rolling stone. If you have some endorphin release from it, you will crave more. The positive benefits of exercise are that you will have an endorphin release, leaving you wanting more, your body will feel better and look better, and you may even decide to shower and be more social with others.
I am sure the important people in your life will be super excited about the shower part.
If you believe it, it will happen. I know, sounds like Peter Pan thinking, but endorphins are fickle that way. There is inconsistent data between how much exercise is enough to release endorphins versus if there is a big enough response to link the two together.
Should you go 70% of your VO2 max or maybe you should go 80%? Endorphins are also released during stress, food consumption, pain, etc.
So, in essence, you could get your wires crossed. If that can happen, what about “thinking” your endorphins into submission?
Did you know that smiling releases endorphins? Meditation can as well. So who is to say you can’t make endorphins your bitch and “believe” them into submission? Ohhh, that is a topic for another article...
So what exercises produce this endorphin release?
Well, running is famous for it. Many factors are the reason - pain being one of them. Stress on the body is the second.
Being a runner for years both during and after I lost my weight, I can attest to this. The high always came at mile five for me.
I would start running and pray that a Mac truck would run me over. I sounded like a hairy monster that was out of breath, my feet hitting the ground so hard it made my body reverberate and with my limbs all akimbo it looked like I was signaling a helicopter for an SOS rescue.
But at mile five all of that would change. I would feel as if I was an elite runner, head held high, beautiful, long strides.
Yes, endorphins also make you a bit delusional, because I never looked graceful running. Like, ever.
Once I found out I had heart issues and knee issues, I could no longer run. It was a depressing time, to say the least. So I turned to other forms of exercise.
This is where it gets weird.
Endorphin release is very individual and remember, it is released during times of stress, pain, sex, etc. I turned to weightlifting and found I didn’t have the same high - until I started powerlifting.
For me, big weights left my neural system thrashed and in need of endorphins, which it got. Once I left the gym, I was extremely tired, but felt so excited and satisfied it didn’t matter.
It wasn’t the exact feeling I had when I ran, but it was pretty darn close. It was enough to continue on my weight training journey and not have it be a chore to fill in extra skin but a joy to do so.
So how do you start if you are totally depressed, laying on the couch eating a pizza and binge watching Friends?
Tips to Get Moving
Tip #1 - Fake It
First and foremost - fake it till you make it. I took this right out of the Richard Simmons playbook.
Pretend you're happy. Make yourself smile for a full minute. Laugh out loud two times every five minutes for an hour. Get your butt off your couch and shower, for God's sake!
Pretend you are playing a role and the person you are playing is super happy, content, and a go-getter. It will suck. You won't like it. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, just do it.
Tip #2 - Have a Morning Routine
For my new year's resolution, I decided to change my morning routine. I looked up Tony Robbins and started his 10 minute morning routine.
I absolutely hate it. Like total hate.
Wanna know why? Because I can’t veg out and watch YouTube cat videos and eat the second I get up. But I do it because I know that it makes my whole day better.
Tip #3 - Habit Trumps Everything
You will want to stay in your funk. Let's face it, depression is super hard to pull yourself out of. The last thing you will want to do is smile, laugh, get a morning routine and pretend your happy.
But it doesn’t matter what you feel. You do it for an extended period of time.
You exercise. You smile. You shower. You fake it till you make it. You also should speak with others about what is going on in your life.
Endorphins are great and all, but it's not going to cure clinical depression. You may need to go to a psychiatrist to help you.
You may need medication; however, all of the above will also help while you are going through this. Endorphins don’t cure depression, but they can make you feel good enough to help you out of a funk along with other modalities of treatment.
Oh, and go take a shower. That should be your first order of business.