Spring 2017 has brought quite a few gray and rainy days, making the winter seem like it’s taking a very long time to say “goodbye,” and subsequently impacting the collective mood here in the Northeast. As is well known, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons. It tends to start in the fall, as the leaves dry up and the trees become bare, and can last well into the spring. There’s something about cold, dark days that make us want to curl up inside with Netflix and comfort food, tucked safely away from the elements. But doing too much hibernating can make us feel sad and lethargic, and yes–depressed.
Depression affects an astounding number of Americans. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, 16.1 million Americans reported at least one major depressive episode (NIMH, 2015). That’s a lot of unhappy people. For many people, once the days begin to grow warmer and the flora begins to blossom, our mood shifts. We regain the feeling of lightness and subsequently grow happier. We feel more capable of dealing with the ups-and-downs of daily life. But what about individuals who suffer from relentless depression year-round? Or depression’s usual sidekick anxiety? Aside from psychopharmacological means, how can these individuals tweak their daily habits to positively impact their mood?
As a graduate student of psychology, I dedicated the bulk of my research towards the connection between exercise and depression, and how the latter can greatly impact the former. During my Master’s program, I worked as a case manager at a recovery company in Manhattan. I managed an average caseload of 8-15 women monthly with substance use disorders, all of whom also suffered from depression or anxiety. (Substance use, depression, anxiety often go hand-in-hand). I would have weekly meetings with each client, and we’d strategize ways to increase fulfillment in their lives. These sessions included anything from making schedules to working on breathing techniques.
I was a dancer through early adulthood, but I transitioned to distance running as my physical outlet. Because of my passion for fitness, I began leading running groups and bootcamps for my clients. I discovered that I enjoyed working with my clients this way better than talking over a desk in a stuffy office. Moreover, I discovered my clients seemed to get more out of our workouts than my office too. As a result, I decided that rather than pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, I would instead become a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher (much to my mother’s chagrin!) But the facts were there: my clients felt markedly better after a run or a bootcamp session, and I enjoyed working much more in the solution than delving into the problem.
There’s a lot of supportive research on the connection between exercise and depression. Working out produces “feel good” chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. These little guys elevate mood and give you energy. They’re beneficial to everyone, but especially to those suffering from depression, anxiety, or co-occuring substance use disorders.
I, myself, have a long history of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and it leans closer towards depression in the colder months. When I first started running, I immediately noticed the effects of exercise on my brain. The change was night and day. Pre-run I’d feel all the tell-tale signs of anxiety: racing mind, turbulent stomach, restlessness, and irritability. However, after a few miles, I felt as if I could conquer the world. The side-effects of exercise were so powerful that I wanted to help other people discover fitness and implement it into their daily lives. I’ve been working full-time as a personal trainer for about a year now, and I can tell you that the research endures. Quite a few of my clients suffer from depression and anxiety, and they always report feeling better after taking their daily dose of exercise.
Thankfully, more and more doctors recommend exercise as a means for treating depression these days, at least as an adjunct to anti-depressant medicines. It’s catching on in the mainstream as well. Time magazine just released a special edition devoted to The Science of Exercise, with several articles establishing the link between working out and depression. But the best research is empirical, so I encourage you to try it out for yourself. The next time you feel down, or your mind feels jumbled and discontent, try doing something that gets the blood flowing. It doesn’t have to be running or weight-lifting. Yoga has also been shown to elevate mood and bring you back into the here-and-now. I have yet to hear anyone say, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t worked out today.” Exercise is not only just beneficial to your body. As we continue to discover, it has hugely positive effects on the mind as well.
Photo credit: Dominick Wycisto