It’s World Mental Health day on the 10th of October, and here in Australia it’s also mental health week, so I thought it would be a great chance to spout off on one of my favourite subjects: Exercising to improve your mood.
Firstly, I would suggest that anyone feeling low or suspecting they might have depression find someone they can talk to about it as soon as possible. A friend, parent, partner, or even beyondblue, Lifeline etc if you feel totally alone and think you can’t trust those around you to understand.
It may seem completely overwhelming, a problem with no answer, a chance for doctors to shove drugs at you or take away your autonomy, but that’s not what will happen.
What will happen is that you will suddenly realise just how many other people out there are living with depression, or anxiety, or an eating disorder, or bi-polar disorder. It goes on and on. The stigma is real, but people who are actively fighting their mental illness have often turned out to be some of the most open and generous people I know. And once you ask for help you’ll realise it too.
Secondly, don’t take my word for any of this. I am not a doctor and I can only offer the ideas and options that have helped me when I was feeling down, or under-confident, or worthless. I am not talking about diagnosed severe depression or other severe mental illnesses.
Sometimes medication is the answer, and a walk around the block is not going to change that. But it might still help, a lot.
So, with those caveats out of the way, on to the meat and bones of my post!
5 reasons why exercising to improve your mood is a great idea:
1. It works as well as or better than drugs to improve depression symptoms.
It’s as simple as that. For mild to moderate depression, drugs take longer to kick in than exercise and are often very hit and miss in their results.
2. The effects of this mood enhancement last up to 12 hours
NB: this study had participants complete a mere 20 minutes of stationary bike riding, and really, who doesn’t have a spare 20 minutes a day to do that?
3. It doesn’t even have to be 20 minutes in a row. If 20 minutes seems too hard to start with, The black dog institute recommends trying for 30 minutes OR 3 x 10 minute bursts of brisk walking most days of the week.
4. It will improve your sleep. A lot of people find that when life gets particularly stressful a restful night’s sleep is just out of the question. And once you’re tired exercise – or even just keeping your emotions on an even keel – can be harder than ever. This one may seem simple, but please don’t underestimate the value of getting enough sleep in the battle to ward off depression.
5. It reduces stress. Whether you are upset over an argument with a loved one or worrying about those final exams, exercise can calm those fears and put everything in perspective. I personally find that a good run not only erases any worries, it lets me give a big mental F#$@ you to them.
After a good run, or even 10 minutes into it, I just don’t care if someone is gossiping about me. Or that it’s Monday. Or that someone else at work got a payrise and I didn’t.
Although it’s really hard at first to turn to something that is ‘work’ instead of, say, climbing into a bottle of wine and/or bag of chips, the result is so much better that it soon becomes something you will choose to do, rather than have to force yourself to do.
5 reasons you think you can’t exercise (and why you’re wrong):
1. I’m too fat to run, people will laugh at me.
Wrong. Maybe some non-exercising assholes will laugh at you, actually, but runners, on the whole are really kind, unassuming people. You know what I think when I see an overweight person running? Usually nothing. And sometimes – “Good on them”.
It’s hard running if you’re heavier, real runners know this and appreciate the strength of will it takes to get out there.
Another little secret – the longer you run (or ride, or swim) the less you care what other people think of you doing it. Just start. So what if some dickhead yells out the car window at you. Pretend you can’t hear him through your headphones. Or flip him the bird. Both are excellent options.
2. I don’t have the right gear.
You don’t need Kate Hudson’s cutting-edge yoga outfits or Heidi Klum’s capsule collection for New Balance to get out and jog around the oval for 20 minutes. Target has cheap sports bras and sneakers that will do perfectly well for under 20k of running a week.
And besides, I regularly see some very eccentrically dressed joggers round my area. You’ll probably look far more normal than:
Footy guy, who, several times a week, runs a 5-6km length of the road I drive home on in his full VFL football gear.
The Casual Indian, a homely looking middle-aged guy near my house who runs dressed in men’s slacks and a chambray shirt, sweating like he’s just come out of a sauna. He holds a hanky to mop the sweat. Such a gentleman.
I am quite jealous of one fellow’s kit though. He looks like Tony Stark halfway through the design phase of his Iron Man suit.
He wears a base layer of Skins – both tights and a long sleeved compression top – then over that is a Salomon tshirt and running shorts. He looks like a very professional robot.
Most of the women in my area all dress the same unfortunately so there’s no joy in people watching them. It’s all just Lululemon with a sprinkling of Lorna Jane topped off with a sleeveless puffa jacket.
It can get very Stepford Wives here in the Inner Eastern Suburbs.
Anyway, my point is, it doesn’t matter. Put on a pair of tracksuit pants or shorts, and a tshirt, and go.
3. I’ll look funny and besides, I don’t know how to run/swim/ride
I run like a drunken camel, and I see far worse when I’m out and about. If you really care to improve your form there are a million youtube videos out there that can help.
Swimming I guess, yes, that’s harder, you will need a few lessons. But riding is not so bad. If you know the basics then practice will definitely get you there, just be safe if you’re on the roads.
Some people get around this type of nervousness by running at night, or only inside on a treadmill at their house.
While I would suggest it is quicker and easier to just get over it and stuff what everyone else thinks, these are also viable options. Not good for long term though…
4. I can’t run for more than a few minutes without running out of breath.
This is almost certainly because you are going too fast. If you are SURE you’re not going too fast then simply run/walk until you can string more than a few minutes together. It will happen. I promise. And the journey will be a lot more enjoyable.
5. I’ve got young children and no one to leave them with.
This is a really hard one. I’m putting it in here not because I have all the answers but because it’s really important that you try anyway.
If you have money obviously it’s not a problem. Babysitters, gym kids clubs, there are plenty of options.
But what if you have no money? Are ages from a gym? Got a husband on deployment? No husband/partner to help you? Then it gets near on impossible.
Youtube is a great source of exercise videos, as is your local library. Put on a video, get down on the floor and go for it. Ballet, yoga, aerobics, tai chi, there is so much out there to choose from.
If like me you couldn’t bear to exercise during the short time each day your child was asleep and you had some ‘me’ time, then instead you can try involving your kids.
It’s not as relaxing, sure. Doing the downward dog with a toddler trying to shove popcorn up your nose will totally put a kink in your chakra. But kids looove being part of your exercise program and it also instils a love of exercise in them too. Put in the effort for a few years and when they’re old enough to be left alone while you go for a run then they’ll probably want to come with you.
If that’s the case, stick them on a bike and jog beside them. Take them for hikes, swim laps at the pool while they’re having a lesson. It does get easier, and better.
In fact, no matter where you’re at with exercising that’s what I’d like you to take away from this post. Whether you’re struggling with depression or the beginning of an exercise program, it does get easier and, more importantly, better.
It is really, really worth it. I can’t say it any more clearly than that.