How Exercise Helps Me Fight Depression

I struggle with recurrent episodes of major depressive disorder. I used to think of myself as being a strong, confident individual, yet fighting depression for the past year has taken away my sense of mental resiliency. I’m not used to living each day wondering if my mind is going to snap and fall into the darkness of another depressive episode.

A common piece of advice I’ve heard repeated to those struggling with depression is to exercise. Engaging in physical activity, I’ve heard, can be a natural mood booster because of the chemicals produced in the brain while exercising. Since I began experiencing depressive episodes, exercise has become a regular part of my weekly schedule. But the reason I work out is not because I’m looking for a chemical release in my brain to make me feel better. I exercise because even though my mind can feel at its weakest, exercise gives me a sense of still being strong.

On any given day, I have a range of thoughts that can go through my head. I’m worthless. This will never get better. I feel OK. I’m too much. I know my friends and family love me. I’m a failure at my job. I feel so alone. I can’t handle this. Some days I feel so powerless against my thoughts and emotions, I’m left nearly defeated and convinced of how incredibly weak of a person I am. I’m distracted by this internal war raging in my head as I go about my day, but suddenly I feel my muscles supporting me. My body feels strong and stable as I reach, lift, bend, climb, walk and pull while going about my to-do list. As I complete my daily tasks, I see definition in my muscles that wasn’t there before. I take two steps at a time on the stairs at work and reach the top without feeling any less out of breath. Although my head may be screaming at me “You are broken and weak,” my body — thanks to exercise — is constantly firing back, “Look at how strong you are.”

Let me make something clear. I am no pro athlete, yoga guru or marathon runner. Besides depression, I also have fibromyalgia and costochondritis (chronic inflammation of my ribcage cartilage) which both really limit how much and how intense of exercise I’m able to do. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve found a routine of low impact aerobic exercise and strength training a few times a week that works really well for my body. I won’t be winning an award anytime soon, but that’s not my goal. I exercise to take care of my body, plain and simple. And I’ve found my efforts to take care of my physical health give me a sense of confidence depression can’t take away.

For those who are interested in trying some simple exercises, I highly recommend the channel POPSUGAR Fitness on YouTube. They offer free workout videos ranging from complete beginner level to super-challenging advanced levels. A great workout to start with is this 15 minute beginner workout that includes plenty of ways to modify each move to match your fitness level.

I know for many dealing with depression, the thought of jumping around and sweating for any period of time seems impossible, let alone just getting up out of bed each day. If engaging in some form of physical activity is not an option for you right now, I encourage you to find other small, doable activities that can help build your sense of strength. Maybe it’s washing the dishes or taking a short walk down the street. Maybe it’s putting away the laundry, playing with the dog for 10 minutes or reading a chapter of your favorite book. Having an active body helps remind me I’m not the weak person depression wants me to believe I am. Keep finding ways to fight the lies depression wants you to believe — you really are stronger than you think.

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