When someone is mildly depressed, the first remedy that comes to mind: Exercise. In just a few minutes exercise burns off stress hormones and raises endorphin levels (the happiness hormone); now that’s a quick fix. This makes the depressed person feel better, more uplifted and therefore able to re-interpret the sources of stress in a more positive light. However, people who are depressed experience fatigue, low energy levels, irritability, poor sleep and the lack of interest in getting dressed and looking presentable. Ironically, the depressed person who needs to exercise most is not likely to exercise. The situation becomes self-perpetuating.
Depression is associated with dark words. “I’m not good enough,” “What’s the use of trying,” “I’m boring,” “I just have no luck,” “I’ll never find love because I’m not good looking enough.” A depressed person repeats this negative self-talk so many times until it becomes automatic, constantly replaying the same sad lyrics in her mind and believing every word.
The question is: How do you break this cycle and get a depressed person to exercise? This problem reminds me of the fairy tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of the dwarfs, Grumpy, is unhappy and proclaims, “I don’t want to be happy; I want to be sad!” Clinging to a sad state gives a person something he or she is seeking: attention and concern. “Take care of me. I’m a victim.” Exercise physically and mentally empowers the self, awakening the potential to grow and move on. I have observed women who felt stuck in their jobs and marriages, and began a strength training program. After about a year they were able to leave both situations to find greater fulfillment. As they put on more muscle, coordinated their movements to flow and improved their balance, they transferred these skills to their emotional lives. They blossomed with a new-found creative force and most importantly, self-confidence. They continued to exercise regularly which gave them the natural “high” to look down at their relatively smaller problems and see the total picture – then the solution. Unlike being hooked on cocaine or other drugs which deaden the senses, a person practicing a daily regimen of exercise awakens the senses to greater pleasure in life. Here are some suggestions to begin exercising when you are depressed and feel that you don’t have the energy to do it:
- You have to become aware of your feelings, specifically what is making you sad and why you are sad?
- Being sad has to feel so uncomfortable to you, that you want to change it and will make every effort to pull yourself out of it. If you are not motivated to release your sadness, you won’t. You have to want to let go.
- Making small changes helps you to keep them. As the saying goes, small changes, giant gains. Look at all the big New Year’s Resolutions we don’t keep. Instead we should call them New Year’s Evolutions. Compliment yourself frequently for keeping up the good work.
- Work out with a friend. Sometimes we need an angel to take us by the hand and lead us to the promised land of health and fitness. Working out with a buddy becomes a social and positive experience. Often we are depressed because we feel lonely. Exercising with a friend provides a healthy bond. If you don’t have a friend to exercise with, go to the gym. You will meet people in classes and make friends; many people form close ties when they sweat together.
- Sign up for exercise classes in a gym or community center. For example, aerobics, spinning, interval training, body-sculpting, yoga, pilates and belly dancing. Just signing up for a class, like scheduling an appointment with a doctor, makes you feel better! Also, a class is more effective than a tread mill or stationary bicycle, as you need to tap into group energy. The pulsating music works to excite and keep you moving. Lift all the blinds in the house and let the light shine in to help brighten you up. Because we are all different and require different triggers, if the exercise class suggestions do not work for you, then put on your sneakers and walk out the door. The sunlight will energize you. A brisk walk will de-stress and cheer you up. Aim for a twenty minute walk and each time try to pick up the pace. To make it exciting walk briskly for five minutes. Then slow down and walk at a relaxed pace for two minutes. Again, pick up the pace for five minutes, and stroll for two minutes. Continue the cycle. Varying the intervals kicks up the body and your mood, keeping you interested, alert and involved in the switches. When this becomes habitual, pump your arms and sprint for a minute as an interval. Before you know it, you might be jogging and developing a runner’s high!
- Buy a new pair of sneakers, fitness clothes, or a workout audio/video. This can help you to get into the exercise groove. Remember how you felt anxious before the first day of school? Your mother bought you some new clothes along with a new book bag, pencil case, lunch box- well you get the idea.
- Stick up motivating quotes all over your home, especially on the refrigerator. Play motivating music, perhaps the theme song from Rocky.
We all have five basic instincts for happiness. You can count them on your fingers: The thumb is the instinct for survival. The second finger is choice – what I choose or choose not to do. The third finger is empowerment to feel that we have something to contribute. The fourth finger is social as we need to connect with friends. The fifth finger is fun and we all would love to release our inner child and cut loose. Exercise strengthens our entire hand so that we are healthier, able to express ourselves, feel more powerful, able to meet and greet people and relaxed enough in our individual whims.