A couple weeks back my Google Alerts and Twitter feed started lighting up with the news that “Physical Activity Can Reduce Risk of Depression” which, as it spread to different outlets, quickly morphed into “Depressed? Get up and exercise!!” and, frankly, I heaved a belabored sigh. Not because I don’t think exercise can be helpful in maintaining a healthy mental state but because the situation is a nuanced one and I have (indeed, I suspect most people with depression have) spent way too much time in the depths of depression listening to people insist I just had to get up and run/do yoga/hit a Crossfit gym because those people saw a headline just like the one above and now can’t understand why I don’t just stop being so damn lazy. Why I can’t just do a downward dog, run 5 miles, and flip a tractor tire?!
So let’s be clear, you cannot cure depression with exercise. I always remember a novel I read years and years ago where they talked about a character with depression and how his best friend suggested he start going for runs in the park. He responded “If I did that, I would be running in the park with clinical depression”. Now, when it comes to people who are super down-in-it depressed — like the character in that book — might physical activity help them? Sure! Hell, during the worst depressive episode I’ve had so far all I could think was “I’d feel better if I was exercising!” but I just couldn’t. COULD. NOT. If you look at mental health as a 1-10 scale (with 10 being the best and 1 being the bottom of the barrel) I would argue that one needs to be at, at least, a 3 to get up and engage in an activity. This may be different for all of us. When I told my “I’d have to be at a 3” theory to a friend who hates exercise, she replied “I’d say people need to be at an 8!” and I’ve never been at an 8 in my entire life so, yet again, we’re all different.
Further, depression is different person to person and episode to episode and, for whatever reason, we, as a species, are really stubborn when it comes to acknowledging that someone else’s situation may be different than ours, especially if we perceive “different” to mean “worse”. What does that mean? Well, someone who once experienced a brutal bout of situational depression knows that they felt terrible and can’t imagine that they could have felt any worse. Now, if that person took up running and felt better they may now excitedly tell the world “Running CURES depression, I know because I had it. It was terrible and running fixed it! FACT!” What this ignores is that clinical depression works very differently.
Additionally, there is the rampant judgement that comes with all things health and fitness. The idea that people who are engaging in exercise are “good” and those who aren’t are “lazy” leaves no room for people who simply CANNOT get up and exercise. On top of that, there is the obsession (made much worse in modern times by the internet) on proving that one thing is “the best” and nothing else is nearly as good. Add depression to that scenario and it quickly becomes a situation where something becomes yet another source of guilt and stress; another way to feel like we are failing. Personally I know the “that’s not good enough” mentality has — many times — nearly kept me from engaging in physical activity at all.
My exercise of choice is walking and Pilates. These are the things that work best for me. These are the things I was doing when I was in the best physical shape (no back pain, strength, stamina etc) of my life and when I wasn’t slipping into depressive episodes. Even with that being the case, in 2017 when I was emerging from my horrific depressive episode and started, once again, going to Pilates and walking a ton multiple people (including DOCTORS) demanded to know “yeah but when are you really SWEATING?”. Now, here’s the thing, the best physical activity for anyone is the one they will actually DO. I won’t go drench myself in sweat and fling tractor tires around (nothing wrong with it, I know lots of folks love it but it’s just not my thing) and the idea that I have to in order to be “really” exercising is enough to discourage me completely. We live in a society that LOVES the idea that people should suffer when exercising, especially if those people are not thin and with that comes the tendency to bully people out of doing anything because it’s not extreme enough. No one needs that.
I’m not disputing that physical activity can have mental health benefits. For many of us exercising (moving and breathing and focusing on an activity or completing goals) can be a tremendous source support while we are coping with mental illness. Personally, I do feel better both mentally and physically when I’m regularly exercising. As I mentioned above, longest I’ve gone without a depressive episode in my entire adult life was when I was working as a personal trainer/ fitness instructor (though, it has since come to light that I may have, instead of slipping into depression, experienced a manic episode but that’s another story for another day.) and over the course of the last year I’ve found that when my anxiety is out of control or when I start watching a lot of HGTV and experiencing vague, free-floating guilt (two big signs that I’m tipping into a depressive episode) I can keep myself going and relieve some of the horrible feelings (or at least distract me from them) by hitting a Pilates class (or two) but that’s not “curing” me. I see it as more of maintenance thing; like a tool I can use to try and keep me in a better place. That said, I’m doing that in conjunction with regular doctor visits (I’m taking new meds so I’m in my doc’s office all the time) and not one but two therapists.
Exercise can be a great way to connect with your body and get out of your head (because sometimes our heads are scary places) but not everyone can get there and bullying them into it isn’t not only futile but actually kind of cruel. If you are struggling with depression and wondering if exercise could be beneficial I would advise you to do a couple of things:
Recognize where you are — Use the 1-10 scale to think about where you are mentally and where you would need to be to get up and move. There’s no way to do this wrong, your scale is 100% yours and not subject to anyone else’s analysis. It doesn’t even need to be a number scale, just think about where you are mentally/emotionally and where you think you would need to be. Then honor that. Don’t let it be a source of guilt or shame. You get to be where you are when you’re there.
Find things you enjoy (and will actually do) — As I mentioned earlier, I was a personal trainer/fitness instructor for a couple of years. When I left that job I spent YEARS not doing any kind of strength-building exercise because I felt like I knew how to do the things so I should just do them at home… however, I NEVER did them at home. I really need the structure of classes to keep me going. Then in 2017 I started going to a Pilates studio that I had been walking by for years. There I discovered classes I enjoyed, amazing, non-judgmental teachers who I love (check it out, my studio and one of my favorite teachers are on this list of body positive workouts at #3!), exercise that makes me feel great, and, just in general, a place I LOVE going. So now I’m at Cascadia Pilates all the damn time. I’m struggling with my mental health (I keep crying during class, it’s weird), new meds, disordered eating, and horrible body image issues (the feeling that I don’t look like I “should” is strong these days) but at least once a day I get to go somewhere fun, where no one seems to notice those things. I get to interact with great people, breathe deeply, and appreciate my body and the things it can do. Seriously, it’s pretty awesome. I would not feel this way if I was forcing myself to go to “Big Bad Screaming Cardio Bootcamp (now with deadlifting!)” because I felt I “should”.
Tune out the noise — Exercise is one of those things that brings out strong feelings in people. It can feel hard to avoid the people who want you to believe what they do is the BEST (hell, I was once one of those people!), that you aren’t doing anything worthwhile unless it fits their idea of exercise (I recently read an interview with a trainer who criticized Pilates because people who do it “can’t get across a jungle gym” and I was left wondering “But why do I need to? What kind of playground apocalypse am I running from?”), and who demand that you combine your exercise with the current “cool” diet. Remember, your relationship with exercise is your own. None of that other stuff matters. Do what works and feels good for you.
Every couple of years some version of “exercise CURES depression” makes its way around the internet to fuel the unsolicited advice brigade but don’t let it get you down. You are not failing if you don’t start hitting the gym, you are not failing if exercise doesn’t chase away your depression, and you are not failing if you relationship with fitness looks totally different from someone else’s. In general, you are not failing.