I could easily link to a dozen articles telling you that exercise will help with depression. The Mayo Clinic says so; Harvard Health says so; WebMD says so. There are about a million (<–hyperbole) small studies proving it, looking at different cohorts of people, exercise amounts, types of exercise, and so on, almost all of which conclude that yes, exercise helps alleviate depression symptoms in a statistically significant way.
Actually maybe not a million — maybe 19,175, which is how many records this meta-analysis of the research found in November of 2020. The meta-analysis, however, discarded the vast majority of them and kept only the fifteen studies that included more than 3,000 people and followed up with them for at least three years or longer. In other words, longitudinal studies with lots of participants, the best kind of study for accurate data. Their conclusion: “Relatively small doses of physical activity were associated with substantially lower risks of depression.”
This does not, of course, mean exactly the same thing as, “Relatively small doses of physical activity will cure your depression.” But close enough, for my purposes.
There are lots of interesting theories about why exercise helps; some biological, some psychological. One older one struck me as entertaining: the thermogenic hypothesis suggests that exercising makes our core body temperature rise which leads to muscle relaxation and a reduction of stress. I like it, but wouldn’t a hot shower do just as well then? And wouldn’t it be lovely if a hot shower or bath could cure depression? Maybe not good for anyone’s water usage, but so satisfying. Alas, I don’t think that’s it and I’m thinking researchers don’t either, as more recent studies don’t mention that possibility. Instead they consider the effects of exercise on neuroplasticity (the hippocampus again), inflammation, anti-oxidants, the endocrine system (ie, runner’s high), plus the psychological factors of self-esteem, social connections, and self-efficacy, ie feelings of competence.
Fundamentally, though, it doesn’t actually matter to me WHY it works. All the research confirms that it does work. If you’re depressed and you want to feel better, exercise.
But! Super good news for those of us who are lazy and hate sports and sweating and gyms: “exercise” in this context does not mean organized reminders of high school phys ed. All of the negative 1980s messaging about “feel the burn” and “no pain, no gain” is bullshit. For this purpose, exercise just means moving your body. Even a little bit is sufficient. Two and a half hours of walking a week will do. Yes, preferably brisk walking, but if you don’t want to walk briskly, that’s fine, too. Any walking is better than none.
One theory for why walking is so good is that being outside helps, too, especially if you can walk in different places. Those 700 neurons that we create every day only stick around if we use them, and we use them to build memories, so the more stimulation and variety you can include in your exercise, the better. Walking outside should actually be more helpful for your mental health than going to a gym. Also — and as a lazy, gym-hating person, I love this — moderate, relaxed exercise might be better for your mental health than intense exercise. In at least one study, intense exercise raised participant’s stress and cortisol levels, also increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Moderate is good, you don’t need to stress yourself out about it.
Random side-note: do you know why we all think that you’re supposed to walk 10,000 steps a day for optimal health? Ans: Because a Japanese clockmaker in the 1960s made a pedometer with a name that in Japanese looked like a walking man and translated as 10,000 steps meter. (That link might be behind a paywall, but it takes you to a story from the New York Times of July, 2021.) There is no science behind the 10,000 steps and in fact, while it’s not bad for you to walk more, the health benefits of walking top out at about 7500 to 8000 steps a day. If you live your typical life (and it includes an ordinary amount of random movement) and also walk for half an hour a day, you will have reduced your chance of dying early by 40% – 50%.
Back to depression, though, and specifically my own depression: once I realized I was depressed and decided that it was time to do something about it, I adopted two exercise strategies.
The first is the simplest. When I think of it, when it occurs to me, at random moments during the day, here and there — I stand up and stretch. I touch my toes, I reach toward the ceiling, I take a few deep breaths. Maybe I pick up the arm weights that are sitting on my dresser and move them around for a bit, maybe I try to balance on one foot in a tree pose for thirty seconds or a minute. I’ve done a downward dog or two, too, but I don’t push myself and I don’t get ambitious. Just a little tiny bit of movement. And then I say, “Shine on, self,” and go back to being a depressed, unmotivated slug, spending too much time reading the news and worrying about the state of the world. And if I manage that once a day, fine, but about two weeks into my current depression recovery plan, it’s more like six or seven or eight times a day. That’s a lot of shine.
The second is more substantial: every time the thought crosses my mind that I could be taking a walk, I get up and do it. There’s a self-help guru named Mel Robbins who has a 5-second rule, which basically boils down to “when you think it, do it,” although, you know, in 5 seconds, and I guess I’m sort of using that. But I’m not worrying about the length of my walks or being goal-oriented about where I’m going to go or how much time I’m going to spend walking, I just… walk. When I think of it. Does this mean that I’m walking vast distances? Nope, not at all. Sometimes my walk is literally around the block, which is probably not even 1000 steps. It’s a small block.
But check it out:
Knowledge is power.
Is it working? Yeah, it is. I’m still struggling with my sleep, but I feel better than I did two weeks ago. Maybe I’m growing my hippocampus, maybe I’m filling up my brain with subjects more useful and helpful to me than reflections of the past, maybe I’m just getting more fresh air. But I don’t feel stuck, trapped in grief, and I don’t feel like I’m stuffing those feelings, either. I just feel like I’m having them in a healthier way.
I’m even getting glimmers of story again. Not full-fledged chapters, not even paragraphs, but yesterday I opened up a file that I thought would have notes for a story I’d wanted to write and discovered that it contained exactly two lines. I laughed at myself, rolled my eyes, and moved on, but before I closed the file later that evening, I wrote a third line. Word by word, that’s how it’s done, right?
Anyway, I might have a few more blog posts to write on this subject before I get back to whatever my blog’s usual random minutia is. Or rather a few more posts to write on the related subject of how to be happy, because I’ve been thinking a lot about that, too. There is so much stuff in life that is out of our control, the things we can’t fix, can’t change, can’t heal. My son threw me away and I know that more than one of you reading this have shared that experience. Grieving for those losses doesn’t make us needy or codependent or sick. A therapist using cognitive-behavioral techniques would probably try to get us to reframe the experience, ie someone else’s behavior doesn’t make you a failure, this experience doesn’t dictate your self-worth, blah-blah-blah. But the acceptance and commitment approach is more like, “Yes. And…?” That happened. We can acknowledge our pain, feel our grief, and still have an excellent, awesome, fantastic, happy life. Our emotions aren’t an either/or proposition; either we’re sad or we’re happy. We can be both at the same time (okay, maybe not the same minute, but the same hour, definitely.) And I think I am probably going to write some more about my own approach to happiness, because apparently I have more to say. But since this blog post has gotten long, and since I could be talking a walk, I’ll save it for tomorrow!