Doing physical exercise and making it a routine are keys to getting fast-acting and long-term relief from depression.
Physical exercise tends to be low on the list—when it’s even on the list—of things people suffering depression want to do. It can seem to them not just undesirable but impossible. If it takes all the energy—and focus—you can muster to get to the bathroom and back, who could exercise? And doesn’t getting to the bathroom and back count?
But people who have gotten through depression, or learned how to live with it successfully, are all but unanimous that one of the keys is getting physical exercise. More than that, most will tell you that what matters most is not just exercise but maintaining an exercise routine. In short, it’s easier to keep doing it than to start doing it, even after just a few “days off.” People who learn the many benefits of exercise come to rarely want those days off.
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Physiological benefits of exercise
The physiological explanations are simple and mostly familiar. Exercise of almost any rigor releases endorphins—the body’s self-produced “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins have a number of interlinked effects—pain reduction, actual or felt; mild sedation; temporary euphoria (the “runner’s high”)—that make them especially appropriate for people in depression.
Importantly, those brain-produced chemicals are non-addictive—and they’re fast-acting. People who exercise notice themselves feeling better in the course of a workout and are virtually assured of feeling better and brighter at the end of one.
Exercise also helps reduce the chemicals in the immune system that can amplify the effects, and feelings, of depression.
And at the most basic level, most exercise increases body temperature in a way that both stimulates and soothes the exerciser. It almost always improves sleep, which is a fundamental problem for most people with depression, both by making it easier to sleep after exercise (though usually not immediately after) and by making the sleep deeper and more restful.
The mental benefits
Other benefits are more “psychological.” Again, at the most basic level, people who exercise get the benefit of feeling they have done something, which counteracts the common depression-based feeling of worthlessness or powerlessness. It doesn’t just contribute to self-esteem, it brings about self-esteem.
A common misconception about exercise is that if it isn’t “gut-busting,” it isn’t effective. In reality, useful exercise needs only be difficult enough to require your attention, which helps get our attention “out,” that is, focused on something other than how bad you’re feeling.
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Do I need to join a gym?
For people with access to a gym or fitness club, exercise might also make for welcome forms of casual association where the focus is more on shared activity than on any particular individual. It’s another way of getting out of yourself. But not being a gym member or having access to fitness facilities is a self-defeating excuse for not getting the benefits of exercise.
Even in professional fitness circles, the trend is toward exercise that doesn’t require special equipment—or equipment at all. And the internet now has a huge range of “at-home” exercise demos and routines, so you can work with a group or trainer even if you’re at home.
Start slow, maybe with walking
If you haven’t exercised regularly, or in a while, walking is a perfectly good way to start or resume. Just walking at all is a significant step beyond being glued to a chair or holding down a bed. And if you don’t live in a mansion, walking almost inevitably entails getting out of the house, another crucial aspect of getting out. Even in bad weather, you can get to an indoor space, such as a shopping mall, where you can walk in the company of others without necessarily having to interact with them.
Just walking at all is a good start. The more you walk, the more likely it is that you will want to increase the speed or intensity of your walking, until it is fully aerobic. That means that the activity has raised your pulse and respiration rate to a beneficial rate that is higher than the resting rate but not too high.
Check with your physician about the appropriate aerobic targets for you. At first you will have to check them by taking your pulse and timing your breaths while exercising, but the correct rates for you will soon become obvious, and you will feel it intuitively when you are “in the zone.”
Exercise at any age, even in bed
Depression can strike at any age, but it is common among people who are older. There are many forms of healthful exercise that are not percussive, that is, they do not place stress on the joints or keep that stress at a minimum. So, even though age can limit some of the types of exercise you can do, there’s some form of exercise virtually anyone can do, even people who have to be on bed rest. Bed rest can actually bring about depression in some people, particular ones who are typically active, but except in the rarest cases, even in bed there are things you can do that boost both your physical and psychological well-being.
Next: In the second part of this post, we will look at specific exercises that are appropriate and recommended for dealing with depression. Some of them are sure to fit your needs, whatever they are.
For further reading:
Depression - A Survival Guide
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