Why You Should Get Active Even When You're Depressed

Written by Jessica Walters

Exercise helps alleviate depression. As Dr. Lynette Craft and Dr. Frank Perna explain in their 2004 research review, “While the mechanisms underlying the antidepressant effects of exercise remain in debate, the efficacy of exercise in decreasing symptoms of depression has been well established.” Studies have even suggested that exercise works better than antidepressant drugs.

So why don’t depressed individuals just take a few Zumba classes and call it a day? Unfortunately, for the 14.8 million adults affected by depression each year, hitting the gym isn’t quite that easy.

Anyone who has ever suffered from depression knows that getting started on a workout regimen isn’t half the battle – it IS the battle. Symptoms of major depressive disorder can include fatigue, psychomotor agitation and a marked loss of interest in pleasurable activities. So, as if surviving a CrossFit W.O.D. or 45-minute spin class wasn’t hard enough, depression patients also have to fight against feeling tired, distraught and against not really caring what happens one way or another. Factor in a diminished ability to concentrate, and working out starts to seem less like a cure and more like an annoyance.

The problem is, annoying or not, exercise works. A 1998 review of 30 research studies found that compared to other more traditional approaches, exercise was just as beneficial as group or individual psychotherapy and behavioral interventions.

Which brings us to our first step: Understanding that exercising when you’re depressed isn’t just a good idea – it’s the equivalent of implementing a medical treatment element (such as taking antidepressants or participating in therapy). Sure, just like other treatment plans, this one might work great for some and not so well for others; certain patients might need more or less; different individuals might require various kinds or combinations of elements. But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that exercise is a medical treatment option – not just some superficial strategy to lose weight.

Step two is a little harder. Switching your mindset is one thing, but finding the motivation to run a couple laps when washing your hair takes all the energy you have is another. Fatigue is a physical reality, and reminding yourself that exercise is good for you isn’t going to do anything to make your arms feel less heavy or driving to the grocery store less exhausting. That’s why you have to start slow, with no real goal in sight. I know that’s not the kind of advice you might expect to hear, but step two is all about taking the first step towards exercise – and no one overwhelmed with depression needs to be overwhelmed by anything else.

If you suffer from depression, put on some workout clothes and get out of the house. Walk, bike or drive to wherever you’re going and, if you get to the gym or you get to the park, and you don’t feel like staying, then turn around and come home. Change back into your regular clothes and, most importantly: feel good about yourself. You did something. You took that first step. Now tomorrow, go do it again.

You’ll be surprised how few times you turn around before you’re ready for step three: Walking. Now, I know it sounds boring. And I know walking sounds like it won’t whip you into shape. But remember: you’re not doing this to lose weight. You’re doing this to treat a medical condition. Once you start feeling better, you can start setting other health-related goals. (And, just like before, you’ll be surprised how fast that happens!) A 2001 study showed that just 30 minutes of walking for ten days was enough to produce a “clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression.” So don’t worry. You’ll be knocking out those CrossFit workouts before you know it. (And even more good news: research has shown that exercise dropout rates among depressed patients aren’t that different from those in the general population!)

Working out when you’re depressed is a challenge in the same way that exercising with any physical disability is a challenge. However, as this article has outlined, there are ways to adapt your approach to physical activity that can make the experience seem less overwhelming. A good mantra to keep in mind is, “It’ll never be this hard again.” Each time you work out, your body reaps the benefits, making the next time just a tiny bit easier. It’s important to acknowledge your depression as a medical condition and treat your body, and its limitations, with kindness. However, it’s equally important to remember that working out may be one of the kindest things you can do to help alleviate your own pain.

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