When depression and anxiety take over our moods and the little things we used to do without thinking seem to require so much effort, it is hard to imagine exercising. But study after study points to the benefits of exercise, including its effectiveness at reducing depression. In one study of mild depression, exercise produced results equal to medication. In another, females who exercised for approximately 30 minutes had lower levels of anxiety for 30-90 minutes following exercise.
In my own practice and personal experience, exercise has made a huge difference. Running, weight-lifting, tennis and basketball are the physical activities I enjoy the most. Each activity has its own advantages. For example, being outdoors, increased strength, improved self-image, and social bonding. All of them help with depression.
Getting started seems to be the biggest problem for most people. I recommend starting small. Set a timer, and walk in place for 5 minutes, or take a short walk. Don't give your mind time to generate a list of excuses, just do it, any time, anywhere. If it helps, listen to music and exercise for as long as it takes to listen to one song. Starting a program is more important than how long or hard you do it. Make it a regular part of your daily routine like brushing your teeth.
During one of my own bouts with depression, I absolutely could not muster the internal fortitude to go for a run. This was discouraging because I knew how good I would feel. So I walked down to the end of my street and back every morning. I did this until I felt like running and gradually worked my way back into my old routine. Inertia grinds to a halt during depression and it takes a little priming to get back to full steam. Don't worry, it won't take long to get the ball rolling again.
Even walking just a short distance paid off for me because it helped me regain confidence, something that sometimes diminishes with depression. I couldn't very well argue with myself against walking a couple of blocks, and each time I completed it I felt a sense of accomplishment. If I did nothing else for the rest of the day, I had at least done something healthy for myself.
The most remarkable aspect of exercise, in my opinion, is its ability to peak my awareness of the present moment. While on a run, the mountain views, the flowers, and the smell of cut grass are more intense and special. I am reminded of what is right in my world and distracted from the worries and woes that my mind is used to conjuring up during periods of inactivity.
My clients report dramatic changes in mood and body image. They feel better about themselves, sleep better and have more energy after starting an exercise program.
Some of my clients have started training for marathons, entered power lifting contests and hiked mountains which gave them a bigger goal to shoot for. Sometimes this is helpful because it redirects their energy away from their mental illness, which can become all consuming.
It is not necessary however, to take on such an immense challenge to reap the benefits of exercise. Try parking a little farther away from the storefront the next time you go shopping. You will get in some exercise without really making a big effort and your car will get fewer door dings. Pass on the elevators and escalators and take the stairs. Walk in place for a few minutes before you sit down to watch TV. Play badminton with your kids, or take a bike ride.
I am convinced that a good exercise program is at least half the battle on the way to recovery. It has so many benefits, both physically and mentally. Start small, and make it as simple and routine as possible. It will help your body produce is own antidepressants, reacquaint you with the beauty of the present moment, and increase your resistance to stress.