This is the second in a series of articles on my personal healing journey out of depression. In this article I will focus on the role of exercise and movement in the healing of depression. I have found that an exercise program is a must for those that have a susceptibility towards depression and anxiety.
The current program that works for me is very simple and easy to use. It is automatic for me now and I look forward to it so it is not difficult to schedule or implement. I call it the “Basic 5 and 20.” Here is what I do:
- 20 minutes of cardio
- no less than 5 weight exercises for either my upper or lower body
- upper and side crunches.
I do this routine every day. On the days that I don’t feel much like doing it I will stick to the basic 5, on days where I am feeling more ambitious I may add extra exercises or increase my cardio. It is a very simple routine and doesn’t take much time and it can be expanded as needed. I have realized that building muscles will support my body in burning more calories, even when my diet is not perfect. I also find that if I miss a couple of days my body feels restless and it is harder to sleep. I used to go to the gym right after work. Now because I work from home I simply pair it with another errand or appointment that I have outside the house or just fit it in wherever I can. I do add one Pilates class for alignment and flexibility.
Being out in the fresh air and sunshine has many additional benefits, so whenever I can I add a walk around the neighborhood, skiing, or hiking, I do so. Ideally we would be outside every day, but at least once a week an activity where the sun shines upon us is a must.
I wasn’t always an active person. There was a time when it was very difficult for me to get myself to exercise. I first became depressed at the age of 13. Although I remember some attempts at exercise, such as jogging first thing in the morning in the cold. Those attempts didn’t stick. I am one of those people that doesn’t like to exercise first thing in the morning, so any attempts to do that really didn’t work. This is why it is really important to pay attention to your energy type, rather than trying to copy what somebody else is doing. I spent my 8th grade year coming home and laying down on the couch and covering my head with a blanket, escaping into a fantasy world. I did still ski with my family and go swimming in the summer, but a lot of my time was spent in inactivity.
In high school I tried to be more active and signed up for gym memberships and had new routines developed by personal trainers, but it always felt like a chore and I would be enthusiastic for a while and then lapse again. I did start Pilates at the age of 20 and have found this type of exercise to be extremely beneficial in helping me with my posture, alignment and flexibility as well as strength.
In grad school I faced for the first time the possibility that I would fail, not because of simply not doing the required work, but because perhaps I didn’t have the ability or aptitude to succeed. Graduate coursework was very rigorous and challenging. I had an extremely difficult neuropharmacology class at the same time as I was fighting another extreme bout of possibly the most severe depression I had experienced.
I knew that I had to fight this depression with everything possible. I got into weekly therapy and I started to exercise. It was very hard at first and felt like torture, but I knew how important it was. I mostly did classes at this time, aerobic classes and step classes.
One of the signs of depression is a critical view of self as well as others. In my head I was extremely critical of the people in my class. I judged them for their looks, their ability, and their outfits! I had a realization about how destructive this was and I consciously made myself stop. I made myself find something positive to say about each person. It got to be really cool to see the progress the regular people were making and so was I! I started to look forward to the classes and I was going to very challenging high intensity classes with weights at least five times a week! I learned all the routines and I was a step-class queen! I was doing this at the same time as the hardest coursework of my life and working twenty hours a week. I got into the best shape of my life and people noticed!
There were some key factors that made it possible for me to get exercise into my daily routine and I believe these factors are universally important. One of the biggest was the convenience of the club I was going to. I was going to the YMCA that was literally a five minute walk through a small park from my apartment, I was living in Texas so snow was not a big factor. The class schedule worked with my schedule. I liked to do my classes pretty late at the end of the day and the Y had a great schedule. It was also very affordable, so that was perfect on a grad student’s salary. So remember:
- Choose a Gym that’s close to your house
- A schedule that works with your energy type
- A price that fits your budget
After I moved from Texas to California, I knew that I had to find a health club right away and I have always had a gym membership since. I have not found one as convenient and affordable as the Y so I will always be grateful for that club that literally saved my sanity. I now have to drive to work out and step classes are no longer popular, so my excellent skills there have gone to waste, but I have kept with me the deep understanding of how important movement and building muscles are to our mental health.
Both my personal experience and the research literature show that exercise is crucial components of good mental hygiene, and now I can’t imagine my life without it. Call me to learn how you can create a happiness boosting routine designed just for you. Dr. Eva: 303-242-7824.