If there’s one thing that has been a constant help to my state of mind in the last 12 months since being diagnosed as depressed, its exercise. One of the recurring things that my GP, counsellor and the literature I have read about treating depression have stated is that exercise is good for tackling depression. Now, I kind of took this advice from my GP with a pinch of salt, as they probably encourage exercise across the board as lets face it, nearly everyone could benefit from a little more exercise.
The media has published quite a few stories in the last year or so about studies into the benefits (or lack thereof) of exercise for persons suffering with depression. The BBC published findings of a report by the BMJ that stated patients receiving treatment for depression did not benefit any more from exercise than those receiving treatment who did not exercise. This caused a bit of a social media storm with many depression sufferers chipping in how exercise is vital to their treatment or management of their condition. Various view points and opinions have been published since and the BMJ report does not necessarily superseded previous reports such as once completed by Harvard Health Publications. The NHS still advocate exercise as a mean to treat and manage depression as does leading mental health charities such as Mind (though Mind have also published articles taking a balanced view from both sides of the fence).
In my personal experience, exercise has been and is vital to me managing my anxiety and depression. I have been fairly serious about going to the gym and exercising for around 4 years now (and when I was younger, but the long gap in between kind of makes that irrelevant!), so I was no stranger to physical activity when I was diagnosed with depression. However, since my diagnosis I have become a lot more focused and diligent about my exercise as I recognise it as an important tool for coping with my depression.
There are physical benefits of exercise for depression sufferers (other than the obvious physical benefits of getting fitter, building muscle, increasing heart and lung strength etc.) in that exercise releases endorphins which increase immunity, decrease the perception of pain and can naturally lift one’s mood. Exercise is also thought to produce the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which also lifts mood. Beyond these chemical changes, regular exercise makes you fitter, feel better, reduces the risk of other illnesses and can boost self-esteem, all of which are good for combating depression and anxiety.
I now exercise between 4-6 times a week in some form or another. People probably think I’m obsessed, but I’m not really. The benefits I get from it make it worth the time and effort; sometimes I like to think of it as physiotherapy for my brain! Last year I took up distance running for the first time since school and spent most of spring, summer and autumn running every week and training for various 5 & 10K races I competed in. I found running was a great way to wind down, stop my mind racing and helped me clear my thoughts. Spending 30 min to and hour hitting the trails with some good tunes on my iPod was actually a great way to relax and I was always in a better mood after a run than before. Having races to train for also gave me focus and goals to aim for. I like to have some structure and a timetable and this suited me great. I don’t think it was a coincidence that after my last competitive run in 2012 my mood took a serious down turn which eventually led to me seeking help from my GP.
One of the things that helped me get out of this slump was signing up to do the Tough Mudder. This gave me a goal to train for, an achievement to accomplish and challenge to overcome. I loved training for it and I loved completing it, the sense of achievement was incredible. In training for Tough Mudder, I have made some new friends (which is rare for me as I can be a real unsociable git at times), began training in a whole new way and have become fitter than ever. Mentally, I think I am fitter than I have been in a long time too. Although I still have some bad days, I have far more good. I can deal with things in life now that 12 months ago, things that would have previously sent me into melt down. I put this in no small part down to exercise. The previous counselling I have had and skills I acquired from it help massively, as does medication I am sure, but working out is one thing I can do myself that I know improves my mood. Bad day at work? Go work out, feel better afterwards, arguments with the family? go work out, feel better afterwards, stressed or generally anxious? Go work out, feel better afterwards, feeling low and depressed? Go work out, feel better afterwards.
I suppose exercise to me is something I can control. I can’t always control how I feel as much as I want, but through exercise I can control how I physically am. I obviously need to have some sort of control in my life and this is the thing I can control and manage. I know it’s a reversal of the old adage, but I subscribe to; ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. If I exercise, it makes me feel good, if I feel good my mood lifts and then the world seems a better place. I sometimes feel a bit selfish for devoting 4-5 hours a week to the gym/running/fitness when I have a family at home and I also work full time. Of course I’d rather have more time with them, but I think if I didn’t have this time to work out, the time I did have with my family wouldn’t be as good quality. All the benefits of exercise I’ve written about basically boil down to making me a happier and easier to live with person. When I’m happy and on an even keel, I feel able to be a much better husband and father. (Of course it goes without saying I probably have the most supportive and patient wife in the world.)
I think like a lot of treatments for depression and anxiety, exercise depends on the severity of your condition and your preferences. Of course exercise will almost always benefit anyone but if the thought of it causes your further stress and anxiety, it’s perhaps not the right thing for you. I can and will whole-heartedly recommend it, but its about finding the right balance and avenue for your own circumstances. I hope you found this interesting and/or helpful, below are some links I’ve referred to from sites with much more information: