Updated: Feb 3
Depression and Fitness
One of the main aspects to depression that we struggle with is its inability to allow us to deal with our feelings – I am sure I am not alone in having heard others lecture, “think about what is making you depressed and change it” – a well-intentioned but frankly laughable concept. As if a magic wand has now been curtly swished and Cinderella has now been instantaneously transformed from her rags to a sparkly blue ball gown.
No, what I am talking about is the feeling, the vibe, the energy (if you will) of depression.
You know, that force that drags us back to the back dip of the sofa or swamps us into cocooning ourselves into the comfort of our beds. I’m talking about that perpetual lack of energy or drive to do anything at all. Yes, depression can come as a result of our current life situation, past traumas or can just hit us out of nowhere, but what I am talking about is its perpetual state of unending debilitating weariness. The unending nature of these feelings of constant lethargy that cause the depression to drag on for as long as it does – days, weeks, months even years. It is all well and good identifying the reason why we feel depressed, but if you don’t have the energy to change it, then quite simply – we won’t! To be honest, those moments when we can switch off and watch TV mindlessly are a lot more attractive and safer than what can feel like climbing Everest in finding the strength to summon the energy to change things.
I think it is important to get to the crux of what we are talking about here. To summarise depression, it is experiencing a debilitating feeling of utter sadness and a lack of energy to complete day-to-day tasks that were once easy. Everyone experiences depression in different ways, for some it can be as bad as being unable to physically move (catatonic), while others are able to still go to work and complete day-to-day tasks, through finding ways to just mask their mild to moderate symptoms. This inevitably makes those tasks much harder to complete and can leave those suffering feeling even more exhausted and unhappy at the end of the day – which is why crawling into bed and hiding from the world would seem like a feasible option! For those people who suffer from the mild to moderate symptoms, it has been proven that taking physical exercise can actually help to alleviate some of the physical burdens of depression.
Exercise helps to actually fuel a constant rhythm of energy that can actually enable us to feel more balanced and better regulated. This is due to simply pushing ourselves physically and keeping the blood-flow pumping. It also helps as it creates a sense of regularity, structure and routine into our lives, a valuable concept in a time that can feel chaotic. More often than not, this also helps us to feel better about who we are too because we start to realise that although we feel like we aren’t succeeding, we actually are because we are still getting up and taking exercise. Subconsciously, we are also proving that we are worth fighting for as we are actively striving to better ourselves. I read an article recently that said even if you run a mile a day then you will run 365 miles in a year. Likewise, if you walk 5k a day and stick to it, you would have walked 1825 km a year. Surely that is a better achievement than binge-watching Lost for the fourth time in two months.
Like I said, who actually has the energy to even begin exercising in the first place? Surely if you don’t have the energy to get out of bed, then you are hardly going to muster the will to go for a run, are you? The answer is, “yes, you are. – If you start off small.”
That’s right, don’t aim for the Ironman Triathlon in two months if you haven’t so much as walked to the shop at the end of the road, instead of driving to it as you may have done recently. You need to take it in manageable bites so that you can achieve smaller goals. Also, try to avoid going on social media and comparing your fitness journey with others, even if they claim to have been on a path through depression using fitness. Everyone is different and no matter how realistic something can look online, remember that editing is a powerful tool that can morph anything to look real-life. Focus on yourself.
Taking the first step
This is by far the hardest part of it all. Never mind the sweat and the need to summon the stamina to keep physically going once the routine starts - that is nothing compared to actively taking the first step to start focusing on your fitness. I wouldn’t recommend that you go into it without considering these points first:
Book an appointment with your GP and check that you are in good working order to begin your fitness journey. Also, remember to actually tell your doctor what you are doing. If you are aiming to swim, for example, explain to your doctor how much and how often you plan to do it. This is important because it paints a more accurate picture as to what you are going to put yourself through.
START SMALL. YES, SMALL. You need to make sure that what you are setting out to do is achievable throughout your training and not just at the end. You need to make each target achievable. If you have not run for 15 years and do very little physical exercise, I wouldn’t recommend that you aim to do a marathon and expect yourself to be running 15km by the end of the first week in “preparation.” If you do this, you are likely to actually physically hurt yourself, feel unhappy that you haven’t for some reason achieved this completely unachievable goal and then likely spiral down the rabbit hole of depression again. Build it up progressively! Start small and even get other people involved too like friends or family, if that helps.
Consider what you actually want to gain from it. Do you want to feel better about yourself, achieve goals, improve your fitness level, rid yourself of lethargy and unhappiness or even meet other people? Why are you doing this?
Please refrain from sharing what you want to do online. You will feel better if you keep it to yourself or to your loved ones and then build confidence quietly. Once you are in a rhythm of it and are forming a regular habit of it, then great, inspire others if you want to. However, if you decide to do this at the beginning of your journey and then don’t follow through you will most likely feel like you haven’t achieved something again and that is definitely not what you are striving for at this point.
Plan when you will do it. Organise your life i.e., work, socialising, meal times etc… so that you make sure that you do it without something impeding the time that you would spend exercising.
There are so many ways in which you can find effective support for depression. For some people it is through talking to a licenced therapist and if you feel that you could benefit from it then reach out. Others find that through using mindfulness techniques and dedicating time to self-care helps them out too. Similarly, talking to others and striving to be more self-aware of your feelings, thoughts, behavioural patterns and other symptoms can help to gain control over the depression that you are experiencing. However, for some of us, deciding to get back on the bike, listening to some exhilarating music and fighting back through the aggressive nature of exercise can kick depression well and truly in the balls. Why not give it a go? Just remember to take it all in manageable bites and don’t expect to run an Ironman Triathlon in the week. Be kind to yourself, you are after all a human being doing the best you can and truthfully, we are all just winging it.
Jimi D Katsis is a Bristol based consultant psychotherapist at jimikatsis.com specialising in recovery from trauma, depression, and anxiety