Welcome to the third installment of my 12 Steps to Defeat Depression series! If you’re just joining us, you can check out the October 21 and 28 posts to get in on the beginning, which started with the all-important first steps of proper nutrition. If you don’t get nutrition right, other tips will help, but you won’t make the headway you’ll hope to see in your overall healing and recovery.
If you started at the beginning, welcome back! I hope you’ve been able to make at least one change in your diet and nutrition, even if it’s a small one. Baby steps, self-discipline and perseverance are critical to your success and avoiding a relapse.
So let’s get right into the next steps, which is nearly as important as nutrition.
Step 2: Exercise!!
I know. When you’re struggling in the midst of depression, exercise is often the last thing you’re motivated to do. But it should be one of the first steps to healing, right after getting your diet straightened out. And it doesn’t have to be competitive-athlete vigorous. I’m talking about moderate, sustainable (something you can stick with) exercise.
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?
During exercise, endorphins—morphine-like chemicals—are released into your system. These could be referred to as “happy hormones” because they give your body and brain a sense of calmness and well-being. They’re stress relievers that increase your body’s natural immunity (ability to fight disease) and decrease your perception of pain. Without getting into a neuroanatomy lesson, exercise also triggers the release of a good-mood-enhancing neurotransmitter in the brain. It also helps your body regulate insulin release from the pancreas, and that takes us right back to the importance of diet and nutrition!
Exercise also reduces the number of immune system chemicals running around in your body (which can occur from faulty dieting!). These chemicals actually worsen depression, possibly leaving you in a state of always feeling lethargic, sad or “sick.”
Exercise increases your body temperature, which can have calming effects on the body. (But getting your brain all heated up has the opposite effect.)
Some Positive Research
The research is in, and the results are affirmative: Exercise does help combat depression!
Mayo Clinic says that, “Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week can significantly improve depression symptoms. But smaller amounts of activity—as little as 10-15 minutes at a time—can make a difference.”
Harvard Medical School completed a review of studies conducted from 1981 to the present and concluded that “regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression.”
A 1999 study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that exercise is a good antidepressants substitute. But it is worth noting that the group exercising and taking an antidepressant had the fastest recovery response. When I was taking Paxil, (an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medicine) I first drastically altered my diet then eased myself back into regular exercise. (I was so physically ill at the time that I didn’t have any choice but to “ease”!) Within five months I was down to ½ of the minimum dosage. Within six months, I had to wean myself off the Paxil (NEVER stop taking anti-depressants cold turkey!) since it was starting to cause agitation instead of relieving it! Now I regard exercise as my “medicine,” my prophylactic aid to ward off depression.
An additional study to the one just mentioned showed that “exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of the antidepressants.” The participants were less likely to experience another depression episode.
Recent research shows that exercise makes your brain grow! That’s called neurogenesis and it simply means that your brain adapts and grows new brain cells, regardless of your age. (We now know that the brain has plasticity, something we once regarded as impossible.) One area of the brain, called the hippocampus, (an area closely linked to learning and memory), is particularly receptive to neurogenesis. This could be important to people suffering depression because depression often affects memory.)
Physical exercise has a tremendously positive affect on your brain tissue. Exercising while incorporating the intermittent fasting (as I described in my October 28 post) provides even more benefits. And a low-sugar diet with regular exercise protects memory and fights depression.
How Do You Get Started?
First, if you haven’t done any regular exercising in some time, take it slowly. If you start setting unrealistic goals and jump into something, at a pace you really can’t handle physically, you’re going to sabotage yourself and end up dropping out!
You have a wide variety of options available to you. And no, you don’t have to suit up and go pump gym weights. In fact, I recommend that you first select some kind of exercise you can do outside because the positive effects of being and working outside are numerous. You’ll be out of your stuffy house and in the fresh air! And researchers have found that when you exercise outdoors, you tend to exercise harder while perceiving the exercise to be easier. That alone may help you with your exercise compliance since you’re more likely working harder and feeling happier because it seems less strenuous to you!
Just broaden your ideas of what falls into the category of exercise and then find ways to schedule it during your day. (And schedule it you must, since if it’s not on your schedule, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get to it. You’ll find other things to distract you away from this important “medicine.”)
Increase your activity level by adding small amounts of exercise or more physically strenuous activity to your day. Take the stairs instead of riding the elevator. Walk around during your breaks at work. Walk before you eat your lunch. Exercising before eating helps your system rev up to utilize the food. If you choose to walk after you eat, wait at least 30 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t exercise strenuously on a full stomach.
Be creative about how you schedule exercise into your daily routine. It shouldn’t be a chore. Think about what you enjoy doing. Is it gardening? Dancing? Swimming? Hiking? Cycling? Do you want to exercise at home, where no one is watching?
Do you like exercising with a friend? Your kids? Is there a hiking or social dancing group in your area you’d like to check out? Do you like gardening? If you do, then rejoice! Studies show that 80% of gardeners reported being “happy” and satisfied with life in contrast to 67% of non-gardeners. And the more time people gardened, the happier they were! I think it may stem from three things: The joy you get from sticking your hands in the soil from which we came; the joy of spending time outdoors in nature; and the positive, Vitamin D producing benefits the sun gives you. I always feel such a sense of pleasure and satisfaction after being outside!
STAND UP and walk away from your desk. Research is showing that people who sit at a desk without getting up and moving around throughout the day have a higher risk of heart attack and a greater risk of premature death, even if they are a dedicated, 5-6 times-a-week exerciser! So don’t be a chronic sitter!
The optimal amount of time for good health is standing up every 10 minutes, or a minimum of 30 times a day, but for many, that’s difficult to do. At the very least, you need to be standing every 30 minutes to make sure you keep your blood vessels working properly. I set my phone timer to alert me to my standup time.
Learn stretching exercises that can be done at your desk. Do leg exercises at your desk while you’re working. Try standing up to work. Check out the new work station set-ups available on the market. They’re designed to reduce sitting strain and improve health. And all of that contributes to a feeling of well-being!
How Much Time and When?
You don’t have to take up running. (In fact, for musculoskeletal health, I would recommend you don’t!) Walking is an ideal activity. Using your body as the resistant weight, in what are called body weight exercises is ideal. Little or no equipment is required! Find something with which you can perform pushing or pulling exercises. Lift things you have around the house.
Again, start slowly. Set reasonable goals. Think about what you can do at this point in your life. Make an honest assessment of your time and capabilities, and then make a deliberate plan to start doing something, even if it’s only 10 minutes a day. You’ll feel as if you have more control over your life (always a positive, depression-reducing thing for the brain); and you’ll be more likely to feel successful and willing to stick with it.
Put on some upbeat music and do those household chores. Sing while you’re working. Work hard enough while cleaning to break a sweat.
Your exercise goal for maximum benefits should be 30 minutes a day, for 3 to 5 times a week. But remember, smaller activity amounts of 10-15 minutes at a time make a difference. It will also make you feel as if you’ve accomplished something! Write it on your schedule. You’ll feel great when you check it off! A 2005 study found that fast-paced walking for about 35 minutes a day, 5 times a week, or a 60 minutes-a-day, 3 times a week fast walk “had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression." (But don’t let those higher numbers dissuade or discourage you. You don’t need to start at that level. Start slowly and then work up to more.)
NOTE: Make sure you breathe in and out through your nose. Studies have found that keeping the mouth closed while breathing is better for the lungs. Breathing through the nose also cools the brain. And the cooler your brain is, the more relaxed you are!
Aside from how it helps curb depression, exercise just has too many benefits to not incorporate into your life.
It helps you gain confidence. Meeting even small goals increases your self-confidence. It also helps you get in shape, which improves how you feel about your appearance.
It takes your mind off your worries. Distracting you removes you mentally from negative thoughts that feed your anxiety and depression.
Exercise increases your social interaction. Just smiling at other exercisers, or saying “hello” to others out walking around your neighborhood can improve your mood. Even if you’re a loaner type, you need some human interaction. Non-threatening exercise can provide it.
Exercising helps you gain a sense of control. Many people are depressed because they feel as if they have no control over their lives. (That is especially true if you've lost a child, like many of my readers have.) Doing something positive, like exercise, will give you more of a sense of control and help you manage your anxiety and depression. Exercise will also have better long-term effects than prescription medication. You owe it to yourself to try!
And be sure you give yourself credit for every achievement, no matter how small. And don’t be surprised if you experience some obstacles and setbacks. That’s life! If you miss a day or two, don’t worry. Just try again.
A Final Thought: Please let me know how you’re progressing, or if you need some guidance or encouragement to start or keep going. I’ve trained beginning exercisers through Olympic athletes, so I have a wealth of experience along the exercise spectrum. And I love helping people reach their goals!
NEXT WEEK: I know last week I said we’d cover sleep in this post too, but I elected to save it for next week for two reasons: First, it’s been and up-and-down week in my recovery; and, I didn’t want to subject you to a 3000 word post! So, I promise to cover the importance of sleep in the next post and give you some tips on how to have a restful night!
Thanks for joining me.
Until next week!
PS If you are recovering from surgery, please ask your doctor exactly what exercise restrictions you may have. C-sections generally require at least 6 weeks, with lifting restrictions to no more than 15 pounds. Many other surgeries have the same restrictions. It is critical that you follow your doctor’s advice!!
As a side note: Congratulations to the UK for writing doctors prescriptions for exercise to treat depression rather than passing out anti-depressant medications as a first choice!