Depression And Fitness

There are many forms of depression, some forms being more intense and disruptive than others. 

There is Mild Depression, which many of us experience as short term bouts of lethargy or lack of motivation, even sadness. This can be triggered by lack of sleep, stress or even a loss in one’s life (the passing away of a loved one or the loss of a romantic relationship). 

There is Seasonal Effective Disorder (SED) which is associated with the shortening of the daylight hours during the late fall and winter months. Many of us suffer from this and do not even realize it. It has been suggested that as many as 90% of people suffer form some form of SED. Most people effected by SED simply experience a mild change in behavior during these months and often dismiss it as a case of the winter blues. Some people however, require aggressive light the therapy interventions to deal with this condition. 

Then there exists a condition known clinically as Major Depressive Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is a very serious condition and must be diagnosed and treated by a mental health professional. 

Major Depressive Disorder is described and defined by the Mayo Clinic: 

“Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.”

More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn’t a weakness and you can’t simply “snap out” of it. Depression may require long-term treatment. But don’t get discouraged. Most people with depression feel better with medication, psychotherapy or both.  

Although depression may occur only once during your life, people typically have multiple episodes. During these episodes, symptoms occur most of the day, nearly every day and may include:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

For many people with depression, symptoms usually are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, such as work, school, social activities or relationships with others. Some people may feel generally miserable or unhappy without really knowing why.

For those that have suffered this form of Depression I can tell you first hand it is a real struggle! It can come out of no where, it can last for an unpredictable amount of time and it can seem to lack explanation. There does not have to be a specific cause or trigger, although there usually is some water shed moment. There is no guaranteed cure or treatment, although recently a new drug has been approved by the FDA called Spravato. The active ingredient in Spravato is esketamine which is a chemical cousin of ketamine, the party drug. While the effects of esketamine are not well understood just yet there has been great hope among mental health and psychiatry experts that this will serve as a viable alternative to more common drugs like Prozac. For now many people find the use of medical marijuana can also be helpful. This too is an area that requires further study before any reasonable verdict can be rendered.

One of the many treatments that is available to everyone, yet is often overlooked is exercise. Exercise can be the absolute best and cheapest treatment for depression. Exercise is for the most part easily accessible, it is relatively inexpensive and it can be implemented almost anywhere. 

Do not however, be put off by the cost of exercise. The right form of exercise may involve an additional investment. For example, someone suffering from major depressive disorder may want to work with a personal trainer or coach.  Having an appointment with a professional who will guide the process for you can also make the experience less intimidating and more rewarding.  

Additionally you may decide you want to attend a CrossFit style gym or functional fitness facility. This style of higher intensity exercise can have immediate mind altering benefits by releasing more “make you feel good chemicals” in the brain and increasing feelings of positivity. There is also the added benefit of sharing the experience with a community of people who will support and encourage you every step of the way.

In both instances the key here is developing a sense of accountability by having a little extra skin in the game. The more committed you can become to the process the harder you will typically want to push in order to ensure the results you are after. And the harder you push the better you will typically feel.

How does exercise help depression and anxiety?

Regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by:

  • Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being
  • Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety

The Mayo Clinic describes how regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

Is a structured exercise program the only option?

Some research shows that physical activity such as regular walking — not just formal exercise programs — may help improve mood. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are beneficial to your health.

  • Physical activity is any activity that works your muscles and requires energy and can include work or household or leisure activities.
  • Exercise is a planned, structured and repetitive body movement done to improve or maintain physical fitness.

The word “exercise” may make you think of running laps around the gym. But exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better.

Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.

You don’t have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away from work to fit in a short walk. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work. While these suggestions may seem cliche, they most definitely work and are easy to incorporate.

How much is enough?

Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.

The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities that you enjoy.

How do I get started — and stay motivated?

Starting and sticking with an exercise routine or regular physical activity can be a challenge. These steps can help:

  • Identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you’re most likely to do, and think about when and how you’d be most likely to follow through. For instance, would you be more likely to do some gardening in the evening, start your day with a jog, or go for a bike ride or play basketball with your children after school? Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
  • Get your mental health professional’s support. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional for guidance and support. Discuss an exercise program or physical activity routine and how it fits into your overall treatment plan.
  • Set reasonable goals. Your mission doesn’t have to be walking for an hour five days a week. Think realistically about what you may be able to do and begin gradually. Tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than setting unrealistic guidelines that you’re unlikely to meet.
  • Don’t think of exercise or physical activity as a chore. If exercise is just another “should” in your life that you don’t think you’re living up to, you’ll associate it with failure. Rather, look at your exercise or physical activity schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
  • Analyze your barriers. Figure out what’s stopping you from being physically active or exercising. If you feel self-conscious, for instance, you may want to exercise at home. If you stick to goals better with a partner, find a friend to work out with or who enjoys the same physical activities that you do. If you don’t have money to spend on exercise gear, do something that’s cost-free, such as regular walking. If you think about what’s stopping you from being physically active or exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
  • Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. Build on these Bright Spots! If you skip exercise one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine and might as well quit. Just try again the next day. Stick with it.

Do I need to see my doctor?

Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it’s safe for you. Talk to your doctor to find out which activities, how much exercise and what intensity level is OK for you. Your doctor will consider any medications you take and your health conditions. He or she may also have helpful advice about getting started and staying motivated.

If you exercise regularly but depression or anxiety symptoms still interfere with your daily living, see your doctor or mental health professional. Exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of depression or anxiety, but they aren’t a substitute for talk therapy (psychotherapy) or medications.

If you are suffering from, or have suffered from any form of depression it is often helpful to speak with someone who fully understands what you are facing. Being able understand the dynamics of depression is a big factor in helping someone navigate the often intimidating world of fitness. Not everyone is qualified or experienced enough to do this. If you decide to work with a coach or trainer, make sure to let them know that you are battling depression. Make sure they understand and appreciate where you are coming from and where you want to go. Finally, make sure they are genuine and can empathize with your situation. You want to be able to trust in and rely on this individual to have your back at all times and to be there when you need them. 

On a very personal level I have been there and chance are I will be there again at some point. I have learned a great deal from my experiences with depression and I continue to try and learn more so that I can lend assistance to those in need of it. A comprehensive fitness plan should be able to help you feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. If you need any or all three of these please do not hesitate to reach out to me here at CrossFit The Rack. I am here to listen, to guide and to help. 

I hope this blog post helps at least one person out there. If it does please feel free to comment or send us a note at info@crossfittherack.com. In the end we are here to help people in anyway we can and to make our community better through the numerous benefits associated with fitness.