Were you to ask me the quickest way to shift mood from the blues to something altogether lighter and more energizing, my answer would be along the lines of, increase your physical activity. At which point you probably feel even worse than you did before. Physical movement is the exact opposite to what your mood and your body feels. It’s like telling a person who is dog tired and about to get into bed that you’d like another day’s work out of them. An expression of incredulity, perhaps even hostility, arises. And so I feel compelled to explain that I’m not making light of their situation. I really do understand and I’m not asking them to run a half-marathon.
Because depression is a drain on physical and psychological resources it becomes increasingly more difficult to get motivated. Your brain chemistry isn’t helping matters and your sense of confidence and feelings of isolation are probably worsening by the day. The fastest way I know of to turn things around is via exercise. Exercise rapidly improves mood through the release of endorphins and there are other spin-offs.
When compared with antidepressants there are clear benefits to exercise. For a start, mild to moderate levels of depression may not respond fully (or at all) to antidepressant medication. On average, it takes four to six weeks for antidepressants to reach their therapeutic effect, whereas the effects of exercise begin almost immediately. As to how effective exercise is for depression, study after study shows that a regular program of mild-to-moderate activity helps prevent a depression relapse. Furthermore, there are no chemical side effects, and unless you choose to join a formal class or gym, it’s completely free and natural.
I wonder how many items of exercise equipment are out there, slowing gathering dust through lack of use? I have a road bike that’s doing just that. Exercise tends to fail because people throw themselves at it too hard. Perhaps some well-intentioned burst of enthusiasm in the New Year rapidly becomes off-putting and aversive? Maybe that’s how you remember and think about exercise: a failed experiment. Maybe you don’t see yourself as that type of person and that’s why nobody will find any sports gear in your place. Well, I’d say it’s time to recast your thinking and come to terms with the idea of movement as a helpful, therapeutic activity and something that’s done on your terms rather than what others say is right or wrong, good or bad.
My road bike is gathering dust because it doesn’t really work for me. I can use it in good weather but even then I find the traffic oppressive and I wonder if the fumes I’m inhaling offset the benefits of exercise. I find walking is simpler, more enjoyable and something I can do everyday. Having a dog helps. My greyhound, Fynn, takes me out a couple of times a day, rain or shine. I guess the simple message is to find something that works for you and stick with it. The fact that you’re doing light exercise isn’t cheating and gardening, dancing, or walking are all forms of movement.
If you try, you’ll experience a gradual shift in mood. Take it easy, do it daily, and if you make it sociable, so much the better.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.