Uplift: How Pushing Weights Lifts My Depression

“Human beings are designed for regular physical activity. The sedentary nature of modern life probably plays a significant role in the epidemic incidence of depression today.”  Andrew Weil, M.D.

After a long winter and dreadful May of rain and cold temperatures, beautiful June is finally here. The sunlight is filtering through the green tree leaves and warm air blowing across my hair.

Summer’s a great time to start investing in your health again after winter’s hibernation.  People are out walking or working in their gardens.  This whole time of year screams “move!”  I have added weight training as part of my moving routine.  Maybe you can, too.

Pumping Iron Lifts My Mood

After gaining ten pounds as an Idaho couch potato this winter, I’ve recommitted myself to cardio by hitting the elliptical at the gym.  The other thing I’ve done is to hire a personal trainer for the summer.  I drive twice a week to this edgy side of Buffalo to meet him at “KC’s Fitness“.

Dan Mitchell isn’t your typical trainer. No grunting blockhead yelling at me to “push through the pain” of pushing a rack of weights above my balding head. He’s  a renaissance man in his late-forties who knows a ton about exercise and nutrition.  Not only that, he’s had his share of inner battles like me.  He understands the psychic underground, the rough terrain of anxiety and depression.

Dan is just as likely to quote the Buddha as to teach me about how to strengthen my body’s core.  At the end of a workout, I feel the electricity in my body and a mental sharpness that’s been lacking in my life.  He told me today, “When we’re stressed and sit all day, the stress hormones have nowhere to go and just become toxic.  Get up every hour or two and move around for five to ten minutes.  And lots and lots of water.”

Dan says this to me in such a centered way that I hear it on some deeper level. Dan cares about my total health – body, mind, and spirit. And I feel encouraged and motivated to keep going.  And Dan makes sure I do.

The investment in a personal trainer is worth it.  Here are four benefits I’ve identified of working out with Dan:

1. It’s Educational

If you don’t know which exercises are most effective for the goals you have, you are unlikely to achieve those goals. For example, if your goal is to build core strength but you spend all your time on cardio exercises, then you are unlikely to hit your goal. If you don’t know which exercises are most effective for the goals you have, you are unlikely to achieve those goals. For example, if your goal is to build core strength but you spend all your time on cardio exercises, then you are unlikely to hit your goal. Dan’s taught me a lot about how my body works and how the exercises I am doing is effecting it.

2.  It Helps to Perfect Form

Having Dan beside me to demonstrate the correct posture and technique is invaluable. He ensures I am performing exercises correctly and efficiently, in order to maximize results. If your form when exercising is not correct, then you are at increased risk of injury as well as not achieving your goals.  It amazing when Dan points out how moving my feet further or closer together can affect the exercise for better or worse.

3. It Helps with my Unique Requirements

I have bad knees from old sports injuries. Dan understands this and we work around it.  For a long time, I felt like lifting weights to improve my lower body was out of the question because of sharp knee pain. Dan is careful to demonstrate the correct posture and technique before I try. This helps me from further injuring my knees and at the same time, achieving my goals using the weight lifting exercises he has modified for me.

4. It Helps Me Set Realistic Goals

Everyone wants to achieve their goals straight away, whether they be weight loss, greater strength or tight abs. But these are not always achievable, and if you don’t hit them then you may be discouraged and backslide. Dan has helped me set realistic goals and keep me on track. Without him explaining that I’m making progress towards my goals, I’d be lost.

Exercise Lifts Your Mood

Exercise has a dramatic effect on mood. It’s a great antidote to depression and anxiety.  Christopher Bergland writes:

“The neurochemicals released during exercise are so potent that you could consider yourself a psychopharmacologist, self-medicating through exercise. There is a strong correlation between the quantity of certain neurotransmitters in your brain and your mood. Exercise has been shown across the board to improve the chemical environment of your brain in the long and short term.”

One study showed the exercise is as effective in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression. The benefits are likely to endure for those who have a sustained and regular practice of exercise.

Being Depressed Can Make You Feel Like Not Exercising

A seemingly cruel joke of depression can play on the afflicted is to curb their motivation to exercise. Some of it is neurochemistry.  The neurochemical dopamine, involved in generating pleasure and motivation in the brain, can be low in people with depression.  So, they don’t “feel” like exercising.  They “feel” stuck. Their bodies can feel like lead.  They might resent others telling us to “just go to the gym.” I know I have. They know exercise might make them feel better, but can’t get themselves to Nike-up and “just do it.”  The psychological flatness of depression makes them feel hopeless that anything will make them feel better: “What’s the point?” they may say to ourselves.

A Caveat – Exercise Is Not A Cure for Depression

In no way am I saying that exercise is a cure for depression.  It is simply another tool in your depression toolbox to manage your depression.  I have found it’s a critical part of my ongoing recovery.  But, its complicated.  People with depression who don’t exercise aren’t lazy. Each person struggling with depression will have to come up with their recovery plan given the multitude of factors that created their particular depression.

D. B. Dillard-Wright, Ph.D., writes:

“It appears that depression is an indoor disease, a disorder that thrives on sedentary behavior. The link between inactivity and depression is a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Are depressed people depressed because they are sedentary or sedentary because they are depressed? This is not to say that depressed people cannot be highly active in their lifestyle choices, only that the connection between mental health and physical fitness needs to be better understood. Undoubtedly, depression is a highly complex phenomenon that involves many factors, including genetic predisposition and individual variation. It would be too simple to say that simply by getting more exercise, we can cure depression. Medication will remain a part of the treatment package, but exercise should be included as an important part of recovery.”

Conclusion

In some way, I feel I’ve exchanged the weight of depression that I’ve been dragging around for so long with the weights I now lift.  The former makes me feel defeated and exhausted.  The later, victorious. Vibrant.  Alive.

If you aren’t exercising, do whatever you’ve got to do to start. I was glad I did. And you will be, too. If you don’t want to or can’t hire a trainer, hang with a friend or an exercise class with a group of people.

Now get moving!

By Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

Further Reading:

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, M.D.

Weak Upper and Lower Body Physical Performance Associated with Depression and Anxiety, ScienceDaily

Can You Really Exercise Away Anxiety and Depression? by Kate Harveston

How Your Mental Health Reaps the Benefit of Exercise by Sarah Gingell, Ph.D.

 

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