Some solutions sound so great on paper, but putting them into practice is another story. It could not be more true when it comes to exercise, especially when using exercise to help treat depression.
There are plenty of studies backing up the recommendation for people with depression to exercise as part of their treatment for depression. But, when you are feeling low, getting up and moving is just not that easy, no matter how much you know you should. Let’s look at how to find your way to use movement to feel better.
This article is the conclusion from 25 studies, 1487 adults with depression. Importantly, they included only studies that were actual exercise studies, not information from self report surveys about general physical activity. Why is this important?
First because people tend to overestimate the amount of physical activity they do. Second, physical activity is not exercise. Physical activity is any movement. Surveys that ask folks about their levels of physical activity ask about thinks like housecleaning, and yard work. This type of movement are the things you need to do. They are tasks and can be stress producing. When you exercise, your attention is on your body, moving for the purpose of taking care of yourself, which is stress reducing. This has a very different effect on your brain and your body.
So what did they conclude? “exercise has a large and significant antidepressant effect”
This is great! On paper anyway. But if you are feeling depressed you know there are two big problems with taking that great news and putting it into action:
First, depression is not a stand alone disease. The disease itself, plus the medications that treat it leads to many other health concerns, like weight gain, which can lead to diabetes, joint pain, and cancers. When you feel depressed, getting up and moving is the furthest thing from your mind. Add to that extra weight, elevated blood sugars, joint pain and the side effects of other diseases and their treatments, and putting this amazing tool into practice is far from easy.
Second, our brain is set up to avoid things that make us feel worse. With the ‘no pain no gain’ mentality of so many exercise programs, why would a brain, that is not feeling great, tell a body that is not feeling great to get up and exercise, just to make it feel worse? Motivation to exercise comes when it makes you feel better. When it makes you feel worse, your brain will come up with some pretty creative excuses why you cannot exercise.
What is the answer to this conundrum? Part of the answer is right in the research. Moderate intensity exercise for as little as ten minutes is enough. You don’t need to run a marathon, you don’t even need to run. You don’t need to be at the gym for an hour, you don’t even need to be at a gym. You don’t need to be sore, because that is just a sign you did too much too soon anyway (yes soreness does not mean progress). You don’t need to do high intensity training, just moderate, comfortable level for your body.
When you choose what you do, where you exercise, who you exercise with (or without), and how you exercise so you feel better right away, you are getting the antidepressant effects and your brain will help you stay motivated.
The thing is, only you can tell what type, where and how much is enough to make you feel better. The trick is, not doing too much on that first time out, so your body and brain both actually feel better right away. Then your brain will tell you to do it again, because it felt good.
Bottom Line: The only one who knows the right amount and type of exercise that makes your brain function better is you. The only one who can administer this medication is you. Just like any new medication, start with the smallest dose and see how your body and brain respond. Exercise works best for depression when it is used with the just right type and dosage for you right now.
Keep Moving Be Well,