It is a well-known reality that exercise helps ease the symptoms of depression, so to present a bunch of studies that show this to be true would be obvious and a little too easy. One of my favorite observations of the triumph of exercise over depression occurs at the start and finish of the Crim 10 mile race every year – the only race I will pay to run in. At the start you’d be hard pressed to find one person in a crowd of 7,500 in a depressed funk – gloomy, head down, quiet and brooding. At the finish, it’s all but impossible – at least I’ve never seen it. A part of depression, having mildly been there myself, is the inability to dig one’s self out of the hole that they’re in with the current capacity for thought. I’ve gone through times where I just didn’t have what it took to get out of the funk I was in. Work stress is my biggest failing lately because I’m simply not used to dealing with the level stress that I’ve got. It’s not always like that but I’ve had some days string into weeks, string into months that literally made my hair thin. This is not an excuse, but I’ll get to that in a minute. That said, the one thing that will pull me out of the ditch is to get a good sweat on. Specifically, I can throw a good bike ride at any bad day and always come out smiling. It wasn’t always like that though.
It absolutely must be noted, if you’ve got problems with depression, the first place to look for redemption after you’ve found a good therapist is on the road. Running would be the easiest and quickest because after you’ve found out how much the therapist is going to set you back, you may be requiring something on the inexpensive side. Follow that with swimming and then cycling (unless you’ve already got a decent bike, in that case get on it).
I am, and have been from the start, a social exerciser and I highly recommend it. Running (or riding) with Mrs. Bgddyjim, or my friends English Pete, Marc, or any of my other running buddies is much more enjoyable than running or riding alone. This isn’t always practical of course, but even starting out together and then eating together afterwards, even once a week, has its benefits above the loner approach. First of all, if we’re meeting as a group, as we do every Saturday morning, we help each other along if one of us is struggling with getting off the couch. If I had saved a dollar every time one of my friends provided some much-needed motivation over the last ten years, I’d have enough for a new triathlon bike. Second, after we’ve finished, we’ve got five to fifteen guys on endorphin highs talking about the next big adventure or the last personal best – it’s pretty difficult to stay stuck in a mire in that environment…and God forbid one of us is down, the rest of us will help the poor fella out of the pit and make sure that we keep in contact to maintain positive forward motion (I’ve been the poor fella more than once of course). This, in recovery circles, is called a support group and it sure as hell beats trying to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you’re standing there barefoot.
If you don’t have a group of friends (or a friend for that matter) who will exercise with you, find some. Go to your local running store (the mom & pops one, not the big box) and ask if they know of any running clubs that are accepting new members. If you’re a cyclist, hit your LBS.
Now, my friends and I, a few of whom are actually prone to mild depressive symptoms as well, have had numerous discussions as to why exercise helps battle it – usually within the first four miles because we’re too winded on the way back. The simple answer is the release of endorphins – this is well documented and really shouldn’t blow up anyone’s skirt. We’ve come up with another hypothesis though. The act of exercising itself is viewed as progress, whether it be progress to being a fitter you or progress to weight loss. The key word at work here is progress. When a fitness, time or mileage goal is achieved that triumph passes through to the rest of our lives. With every achievement, the overall attitude improves…and before long you’re thinking you can get out of whatever it is that’s bogging you down because you ran that 10k in 48 minutes where a month ago you couldn’t even get off the couch. This is where the group comes in handy again. I started out last June with a goal to complete an Olympic length Triathlon with hopes that I’d slim down a little and work off some of my old man fat. I accomplished the distance but I really couldn’t tell the difference in my physical appearance. It wasn’t until several of the guys at my running club mentioned how much I’d trimmed up was I able to see it in the mirror. I see myself every day so I don’t notice the little changes. My friends, on the other hand, do. The same can be said for non-physical characteristics.
We’re not quite all the way back to happy yet though. Perhaps the hardest part of getting out of a depressed state is managing one’s thoughts. We’ve got to change the tape we play in our melon to something a little more productive. For instance, I mentioned above that I’d lost weight but I didn’t think I looked any different. In a depressed state I could easily see myself looking at the fact that I hadn’t noticed the improvement as a negative. To illustrate, say my buddy Marc says, “Geez Jim, you look great – you really trimmed up in the last couple of months”. My thought progression would go something like this; Well why didn’t I see it? Here I am busting my ass to look better and I can’t even notice when I do. Damn, I must be stupid or something. Well if I can’t tell, what’s the use? Besides, he’s probably lying anyway – after all, I don’t see a difference at all … By the time next Saturday rolls around I’ve replayed that tape 150 times in ten different variations and I’m looking for an excuse not to show up because the guy I thought was my buddy is a liar.
To a normal person this should seem far-fetched. To someone with depressive tendencies, on the other hand, they just had a light bulb pop up over their head and are now trying to figure out why they do that to themselves. Depression is self sabotage of the mind, perpetrated by none other than the depressed person. The proper thought process for the scenario that I laid out above is; No kidding, it’s working! Sweet (and then you promptly check out your fabulously taught buttocks in the mirror when you get home – and you realize that your buddy was right). Then you notice that your chin is a little more chiseled than you remember, and that your love handles are gone, and that you can actually see the rips in your muscles – so you head out for an active recovery ride so you can make sure and be ready for your next run. I should know, that’s how it worked for me. In order to escape depression, the tape (or thought process) that plays in our head must be changed. With help from close friends the transformation is not so hard. Alone it can be near impossible.
This has already been a very long post so I’ll wrap this up on a very important note. Once we’ve learned how to change the tape, there’s still more work to be done. We’ve been thinking incorrectly for long enough that it’s likely become a habit, which means that we’ll revert back to that negative thought process if we’re not careful (usually at the first sign of adversity) – and this is where the group comes in handy again. Due to the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of filters on that cancerous thinking yet, we can digress without even realizing it. If we’re beholden to meet the group and we find ourselves making excuses to avoid showing up, we know we’re in deep trouble. Isolation is the enemy and a sure sign that we’re falling back into the mire once again. This is the time to suit up and show up – and share with someone trustworthy what we’re going through so they can help us back to reality.
Eventually, once the tape is changed (over and over and over again) we develop the ability to apply that thinking to new situations. We find that where we were once looking for the negative in every little thing, we’ve begun to look for solutions to life’s problems so that we can continue on the happy path that we were on. We learn to do for ourselves that which used to baffle us. We’re keeping our side of the street clean.