Depression is a medical condition – it means that I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that causes changes in my moods. I manage this imbalance by taking antidepressants, eating healthily and exercising. But healthy eating and exercise alone won't cure my depression.
Why I exercise
Many months ago I discovered yoga and while I might not be as graceful as some others, I find that it is a gentle way to exercise – while including some meditation and lots of deep breathing. I hate exercising but I know it’s something I need to do. You see, here’s the thing with depression – the Black Dog will pull you right down, tell you you’re worthless; it will tell you you’re fat, you’re ugly… which makes exercising a lot harder.
But, I know how important it is for my health to exercise. It was important for me to find a form of exercise that I enjoy (I tried running; it wasn’t for me. I tried cardio-based workouts, but I couldn't keep up). Yoga gives me a break from the thoughts in my head, from the Black Dog. For the duration of my yoga flow, I find I'm so focused on twisting my legs into a shape resembling a pretzel and the process of breathing that I can no longer focus on my internal demons.
Every afternoon, I pull out my yoga mat and find an online video. I don’t have to worry about anyone laughing at me or need to compare myself to someone else’s body. It’s just me and the video (and a couple of cats and dogs). It’s a safe space where I can stretch, breathe and exercise.
Has exercise helped my depression?
No! Over the years I’ve tried many different forms of exercise, waiting for the “aha” moment – the moment where I feel energised, fit and not depressed. And I'm still waiting... Exercise doesn’t make me sleep better at night; it doesn’t make me feel more energetic. These are symptoms of my depression and exercise, unfortunately, will not cure it. But exercise has taught me to love myself and my body, to appreciate the importance of looking after it even when the Black Dog is telling me all my efforts are futile.
Never a stand-alone treatment
I have heard of many people who claim that exercise has cured their depression and changed their lives. And that’s great. But it doesn’t mean that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution.
"For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn't enough for someone with severe depression," said Dr Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
"People experience anxiety, no doubt about it, but [most] don't have an anxiety disorder," Jennifer Payne, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural science at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told TONIC. "Yoga is fabulous and can be great for anxiety, but it's not going to cure an anxiety disorder." The reason yoga works for anxiety is because it helps regulate adrenaline levels. However, she says that with diagnosed conditions, exercise should always be considered a supplement – never a stand-alone treatment.
There may be some benefit to exercising, however. According to a paper published in the Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Psychiatry, “Involvement in structured exercise has shown promise in alleviating symptoms of clinical depression.” This means that exercise can help improve the symptoms of clinical depression. Evidence suggests that adding cognitive-behavioural therapies, such as exercise, “can improve treatment outcomes for many patients”.
Jennifer Carter, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine and the director of sport psychology at Ohio State University, has been pushing exercise therapy since the early 2000s. “I view balanced exercise as an important component in treating anxiety, depression and other mental-health disorders,” she told the Washington Post. “If clients are depressed, I educate them that the two best self-help strategies are exercise and social support. For anxious clients, I teach them how exercise helps reduce worry, panic and other symptoms.”
Carter adds that although “I inform clients about studies showing that exercise can be as effective and longer-lasting than medicine, I’m not anti-medication. Psychotherapy, exercise and medication are all tools that can be effective for mental-health disorders.”
The take-home message
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that like all forms of therapy available, effects can vary. They say, “Some people may respond positively, others may find it doesn’t improve their mood much, and some may experience only a modest short-term benefit. Nonetheless, researchers say that the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health are not in dispute, and people should be encouraged to stay physically active.”
So, if you suffer from depression like me, find a form of exercise you enjoy and do it for your health – don’t see it as a replacement for medication and therapy, unless, of course, it works for you. But remember – one size does not fit all.
How to plan an exercise programme
Here are some simple tips for planning an exercise programme that will stick:
- Find something you enjoy – for me it’s yoga and walking/hiking. My husband and I usually take the dogs for an off-lead walk or hike over the weekends. We love being outdoors, so it doesn’t feel like exercise.
- Set achievable goals – start with a 5km parkrun before you try a 10km or 12km run; do a 10-minute yoga session before tackling a 50-minute session.
- Decide whether you need a partner or if you’re okay to exercise on your own – having a partner keeps you accountable and makes it more difficult to cancel when you’re not feeling up to it.
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