Running For Your Life: How I View Depression and Exercise

Posted on January 28, 2012 by

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My idea of exercise is a good brisk sit. ~Phyllis Diller

Unlike the lovely Ms. Diller, I love to exercise. It gets me going in the morning, it gives me energy throughout the day, it fights the ravages of age. I love it enough to want to talk about it–a lot. I like to discuss the new poses I’ve learned in yoga, my recent switch from the treadmill to the elliptical, some of the pilates moves that may not sculpt me like they do the instructor, but which are challenging nonetheless.

Can you see me doing my headstand here...?

However, I’ve learned that, in order to maintain even a modicum of popularity, I really do need to limit the time spent on this topic. Apparently not everyone shares my tremendous enthusiasm. In fact, I’m coming to the perplexing conclusion that many people–sit down for this–just do not like to exercise.

I know–I was shocked, as well.

But whether people like it or not, I’m a huge advocate of exercise, because of all it can do for people. But more to the point, here, is that I particularly encourage my depressed patients to exercise, as difficult as it is to motivate themselves, because the difference it can make in their depression is worth all the unpleasantness that so many people find in time spent working out.

There is a plethora of research on the benefits of exercise vis-a-vis depression, covering the young to the elderly, mild exercise to intense aerobic workouts. A google search should set you running. I just mention a few here for variety’s sake–and to show you I’m not full of wind. However, in fairness, a number of these studies are not terribly rigorous methodologically speaking, and one meta-analysis by Lawlor & Hopker in 2001 goes as far as to claim that the actual effectiveness of exercise vis-a-vis depression can’t be proven due to “a lack of good quality research on clinical populations with adequate follow-up.” [If you want to take a look at a somewhat dated (1993) survey of the literature which indicates some of the methodological difficulties in some of the studies, I include the Byrne & Byrne article, "The Effect of Exercise on Depression, Anxiety and Other Mood States: A Review" here for your delectation.]

I persevere, however, because the studies are improving, because simply not meeting scientific research standards still does not mean these studies don’t have something important to say–and because it’s so clear to those who try, despite their suffering, that exercise helps, isn’t it? As much as we hate to get moving, once we’ve finished, don’t must of us agree that we feel somewhat better–even if it’s just better that dreaded task is now over?

So here’s just a sample of what you can dismiss as un-rigorous–or you could actually think about it. Dimeo et al published a real gung-ho article in an unusal forum, the British Journal of Sports Medicine, in 2001. “Exercise” didn’t even sound too bad, really, for this one, as it was 30 minutes a day on a treadmill for 10 days, and the researchers found a statistically significant reduction in depression in that short of a time. Sounds a little Pollyanna-ish to me, to think we could cure depression in 10 days, but what if it was just a lift, just something to boost a person enough to believe that an end to this illness just might be in sight?

A study published in 2005 by Andrea Dunn et al in the  American Journal of Preventive Medicine found just twiddling your thumbs didn’t cut it–but if people met public health recommendation standards for exercise [and they're not all that rigorous, trust me], then that effort was significantly correlated with reducing scores on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression.

And one of my favorites, given my love of exercise coupled with my abhorrence of TV, was a study entitled “Relation Between Clinical Depression Risk and Physical Activity and Time Spent Watching Television in Older Women: A 10-Year Prospective Follow-Up Study” by Michael Lucas et al just published in 2011. My favorite part about this one is that it studies non-depressed people. Clever.

Turns out, it seems, that higher levels of physical activity are clearly associated with lower depression risk [I don't know how they figured out who would have become depressed anyway--I was a disaster at Statistics--but I'll let it be]–and, in the piece-de-resistance to all who know my distaste for TV–you ready?–risk of depression increased with television-watching time. I love it.

Look, I see it this way. When you’re sick, and depression is an illness, there’s no doubt about that, it’s important to do whatever you can do make yourself better. I don’t recommend throwing all your pills down the toilet [or whatever they tell you to do with them now] and heading for marathon-training-courses. I just firmly believe that it’s crucial that you do everything in your power to make yourself better–and exercise is one tool in your arsenal, difficult as it is to motivate to do it.

So please, do something.

Park your car farther away from the store and walk.

Ride your bike to work if it’s close.

Take the stairs two at a time.

Get up from the computer once an hour and walk around the house or the halls.

Walk to the local mailbox instead of sticking the mail in the slot.

Give your young children a the piggy-back-ride of their lives. Put on the music and dance.

Instead of a lunch-date, make a walking date with one of your chatty friends who helps you pass the time with her engrossing gossip.

Garden.

Shovel your own snow. [I live in Chicago, and at times I regret this decision mightily, but I must do it when it snows, and it is a fantastic workout that you don't really get on the machines.]

Do jumping jacks with the First Lady on the White House lawn.

First Lady with her jumping-jack crew on White House lawn

Find a work-out partner who resembles Schwarzenegger in his approach to fitness, rather than Garfield. Let him guilt you into working out.

Heck–join me at yoga and stand on your head.

Just do something, so you can contribute as much as possible to your return to health. Because frankly, the alternative stinks.

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