When Working Out Doesn’t Always, Well, Work Out

I had a tough spell of moderate depression that started two weeks ago and just ended recently.

I had little energy. I was glued to my seat.  Before this, I had been exercising religiously three times per week.  I noticed that exercise had a wonderful cumulative effect on my mood that carried over from day-to-day as long as I kept at it.  I actually looked forward to going to the gym.

But then, something happened.  I got a horrible head cold. I couldn’t work out.  As I laid on the couch, I felt myself sinking.  I was cranky. More followed.

image0I got a call a few weeks ago from folks that wanted to write an article about my parents and I.  They had found me by reading a blog I had written, Our Parents, Our Depression.”  They interviewed me then asked if I would rummage through some old pictures of my parents.  I dug around in some boxes. I found an old black and white of my parents. Probably when they were in their early fifties.  It brought me down.  They had depression also. Though I didn’t know that as a child. And they probably didn’t think of it that way.  But they clearly had all the symptoms.

This whole thing brought up a lot of sadness. Some of it because of the unhappy lives they led – much of it punctured by episodes of depression, drinking, and violence.  I feel connected to them still years after their deaths. I thought about how powerful the link, genetic, emotional and psychological, is between where we come from and where we find ourselves now.  Given this history, I sometimes feel like my depression is insurmountable.  Why even try? I think. It’s just going to come back away.

So, back to working out.  I just couldn’t get going.  Just thinking of the 10-minute drive from Starbucks made me weary. I drank more coffee to get a boost, but it had no effect.

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I started feeling a bit better yesterday. I still didn’t want to go to the gym but had enough energy to push through my resistance.  I got to the gym parking lot. My legs felt heavy as walked to my workout.  I got through 20 minutes on the elliptical and pumped weights.  I felt great the rest of the day and today the depression is gone.  I feel back to my old self.  While exercise and movement aren’t a panacea, it is one powerful tool to coping with this onerous illness.

This experience taught me something: exercise isn’t just something that healthy for someone like me who has depression.  It’s essential.  It has powerful effects on the brain that are difficult to achieve with therapy and/or medication. In fact, for mild to moderate levels of depression, studies show that exercise is just as effective as the meds.  As it turns out, exercise actually boosts the positive effects of antidepressants.

So build up a regular workout regimen.  There will be times that you’ll fall off the wagon. You’ll find that working out just doesn’t isn’t working out when you’re blue.

But get back on the wagon. And get your heart and spirit pumping again.

Check out the excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain for a wonderful explanation of what goes on in the brain during a depression and how exercise counteracts it.

Copyright, 2016 by Daniel T. Lukasik

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7 thoughts on “When Working Out Doesn’t Always, Well, Work Out

  1. Great article Dan. I shared it on twitter. I also recently came to understand that my parents suffered from depression… It really puts things into perspective. I do see the benefits of exercise but for me they aren’t immediate. It often takes a few weeks for my body to stop rejecting it and start to crave it.

  2. A friend of mine recently recommended an article called, “Depression-Busting Exercise Tips For People Too Depressed To Exercise,” which I found to be motivating and helpful.

    I’m not including the link in case that causes my comment to be filtered out as spam, but you can find it easily by searching for the title. It’s published on a blog site called The Establishment. The article gave me another way to deal with the guilt and shame I put on myself when I’m too depressed to exercise and gave me ways to find compassion and small steps that I hadn’t thought of instead. I’m sure you already know about the research on compassion and depression. Thanks for doing what you do.

  3. Dan, I experienced the miraculous effects of regular exercise when I had a breakdown (mostly anxiety symptoms with underlying depression) in the mid-90s. I would not say give up meds when one has a serious condition, but I was able to calm down anxiety as well as boost mood using a routine of 1/2 hour running in my neighborhood, 1/2 hour meditation, 1 hour at the gym (swimming and machines), augmented by journal writing, shiatsu massage (great for nervous conditions), and visits with friends. There is not simply one remedy for depression and anxiety, but my running and swimming not only relaxed and calmed me, but also gave me a chance to be out among others and see myself as a more complete person (not just someone with an illness). Luckily, I also met an author in the swimming pool who gave me an interesting freelance editing gig which further helped my recovery. Thanks for your blog which is helping so many, not only attorneys.

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