Certain kinds of physical exercise are particularly helpful in dealing with depression.
Diet and exercise are two areas in which people with depression can have the strongest positive effect on their own condition. The difference is that you feel the effects of a healthier diet quickly but you feel the benefits of exercise immediately, or almost immediately. One of the things most people with depression have to find out in the process is that exercise is fun, and most people who do it want to do more of it, or do it regularly.
Depression famously clouds judgment, so in beginning any exercise routine, it is always a good idea to check with your doctor or other health professional first. There may be medical reasons, such as a heart condition, that would militate against certain forms of exercise, but some form of exercise that will increase your feeling of well-being is likely available to you.
For the “feel-good” effect, most professionals recommend aerobic exercise. It is also called cardiovascular exercise—and frequently just “cardio”—because it uses and benefits the cardiovascular system. It’s called “aerobic” because it regulates the body’s use of oxygen. By deliberately raising your heart and respiration rates for controlled periods of time, it prompts your body to, among other beneficial things, release the endorphins that lead to feelings of manageable euphoria.
As there are with “healthy” diet, there are significant differences in professional opinion about what makes an activity aerobic. Consult with a professional and learn what the optimal rates are for you individually. Too little exertion is ineffective, and too much might take the activity to anaerobic levels on the far side of aerobic ones. Even if they are not harmful, they are anaerobic.
If age is a factor for you, take it seriously but don’t rule out exercise. The UK NHS is but one of a number of health organizations that make exercise recommendations both for adults (up to 65) and older adults (over 65).
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In the previous article we spoke of walking, leading up to aerobic walking, as a good basis for an exercise routine, especially for people who are coming to exercise from a period of non-exercise. The following kinds of aerobic exercise are considered especially effective.
Swimming. Swimming ticks almost all the boxes of positive elements. Since the water does most of the weight-bearing, it’s the least percussive in terms of impact on the joints—although shoulder joints need attending to, so having good form is important. It’s also basically self-regulating; if you’re not a competition swimmer, you’re unlikely to overwork in the pool. There are many styles, all of them of some benefit.
Also, it’s elemental. You’re in water, which changes your fundamental reality in ways that can be soothing, sensual, or stimulating. It is generally thought that any kind of exercise does not rise to an aerobic level until it has been sustained for at least 20 minutes.
Many people find a daily half-hour swim is about right, but you need to build up to that amount to swim safely. If you haven’t swum in a while, start by walking three or four laps in the water. You’ll find out what muscles your body uses in water that it doesn’t on land!
If you’re not a strong or experienced swimmer, it’s recommended that you swim somewhere there is a lifeguard or some sort of supervision. The only downside of swimming as a first form of exercise is “equipment.” You need a pool with hours that match your schedule.
At home or at the gym, solo or in class:
The Step. There are various commercial versions of the “step,” a platform raised off the floor on which you perform footwork. It’s like a “stairmaster” with only one stair, but it gives a great aerobic workout and improves coordination in the process.
Jumping Rope. This activity we associate with childhood is one serious exercisers never stop doing. It brings you to aerobic levels quickly, includes as much variety as you want to introduce to the exercise, and is “equipment light”—just the rope.
Holding the rope does make it harder to check pulses, so start light and learn to count breaths as well as heartbeats. Try to keep a clock with a sweep second hand in view. Because it is all about jumping, there is some level of percussion on hip, knee, and ankle joints. If you’re starting out, getting some coaching on form will keep the percussion at a minimum.
Bouncing and calisthenics. You don’t even need a rope, or a trampoline. If you’re somewhere you have no exercise equipment at all, you can bounce up and down in place to get your heart and breathing rates up. This can be minimally percussive if you stay light on your feet, or toes, but be careful about impact.
Running. There’s a reason you hear about the “runner’s high.” Few other forms of aerobic exercise offer such strong rewards as running, a perfect solo or group activity that makes up in flexibility what it lacks in range of styles, though there are those too. If you can run, prepared to join some of the happiest if “exercise-addicted” of people.
That said, there’s a reason running and jogging are not the fads they were even a decade ago. Running is one of the most percussive activities, placing demands on leg joints but particularly those of the knee. And the kinds of surface(s) you run on make a very big difference in terms of impact on your whole body.
If you’re new to it, talk to your doctor first, and get a trainer’s help with good running form. Until you really know what you’re doing, it’s not a good idea to “push” your limits. The odd thing about speed is that once people are in it, they seldom want to slow down. Successful running is all about being able to pace yourself.
At the gym
You have the most choices at a gym or health club, where there are exercise machines, classes, and professional help to make the most of your exercise routine. The biggest advantage may actually be getting out of the house to go to the gym. But the benefits of non-aerobic or isometric forms of weight training are all beneficial if they are appropriate for your body, and endorphins definitely get released.
Classes or solo
Depression can bring about extreme feelings of self-consciousness, so for some people exercising alone is the most comfortable. There are many kinds of help material available on disc and online that can take you through an exercise room in the comfort and privacy of your home.
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Also, since depression is by its nature an illness of imbalances—of body chemistry, of negative or powerful emotions—exercises that work toward improving literal balance are highly beneficial for many people working through depression. Yoga, Pilates, martial arts, combat, and dance aerobics all stress balance and coordination as well as strength.
The anger/anxiety deal
Not everyone subscribes to the psychological model that depression “is” suppressed anger, the only cure for which is to get it out. That said, most sufferers of depression are, or become, aware of strong undercurrents of dissatisfaction, irritability, anger, and even rage as components of the illness. Virtually all forms of exercise are fully appropriate ways to mobilize those feelings, getting them out in ways that hurt no one, including yourself.
Anxiety frequently accompanies depression, particularly clinical depression. Exercise is a fine way to deal with it—but is seldom more than a temporary cure for it. If you feel a need to exercise vigorously and often, particularly in the same day, check with a physician to make sure you’re getting all the other kinds of treatment you need, and that you’re not damaging your body with too much heavy exercise.
For further reading:
Depression - A Survival Guide
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