It’s the most obvious thing you get told when you have depression: try exercise, it will make you feel better. While it’s true it’s also one of the most difficult and hopeless things to even think of.
When you have depression getting out of bed feels like a marathon. On the worse days getting through the day is like wading through quicksand. So getting out of the house to the gym or for a walk seems like the advice-giver is having a particularly cruel joke at your expense.
I have struggled with depression for a few years now. I’ve also seen it from the side of a carer so I also know how painfully frustrating it can be to suggest even mild exercise, desperate to help but knowing that it will most likely feel very unhelpful to the listener. I also have a fairly rubbish history of exercise – I hated PE and our teacher’s comments which were repeatedly cruel and hurtful, and combined with the natural grace and coordination of a cabbage, that has left me with a lifelong hatred of anything that resembles physical activity. You can guess the result – I am chronically unfit, overweight and suffer from lower body pains most of every day.
And I’m supposed to exercise to beat depression? Uh-huh.
Except the only thing I can say is, actually, yes.
I was referred to my local gp fitness scheme. I’ve been to the gym 3 times (yes! count ’em!) and there has been an impact already. I couldn’t have done my Memory Walk on Sunday before this. I have done gardening. I have even been able to say that I don’t feel depressed – I don’t remember the last time I could say that.
So, honestly, all I can say to anyone feeling depressed (and ready to throw the nearest heavy object at the next person to use the ‘E’ word) is: don’t give up.
If you want something more specific, I’ll try. One of the least helpful things in depression is general, vaguely-positive bits of advice. When you’re depressed you don’t want to know what you should do. I KNOW I should exercise, I hear it all the **/@^*^/$* time. What I need to know is HOW.
1. Try, in the good spells (you will have them, promise) to be open to suggestions of different kinds of activity. Activity isn’t necessarily going to the gym, it is anything that lifts your heart rate and gets you moving even a little bit. As far as I’m concerned, all of the following count:
Wiggling your bum to spotify or radio or anything with a beat
Wii games – yes dance or wii fit but anything will do to start
An extra trip up the stairs
Any length walk if it’s longer than you might usually do – I mean just 5 minutes longer
Obviously, swimming, dance classes, tennis or any other vaguely sporty thing
2. If you ask me, the important thing is to do something that’s a tiny increase on your current level and congratulate yourself for it. You get the self-esteem boost and you get a little taste of the endorphins that everyone bangs on about. You might not do another thing for the next 3 months but that one little step will make it that bit easier next time, and the time after, and the time after that.
3. Be kind to yourself when you really, really can’t do it. I know you feel worthless but a) you will not always feel like that and b) when you do, it’s really not helpful to have another thing you can beat yourself up for. Activity is an amazing thing when you can do it but it’s not a crime when you can’t and any other attitude will beat you down every time you even think about being able to try something. “Oh what’s the point, I never stick to anything, I’m too unfit, some days I can’t even get off the couch so how do I expect to do exercise?” Yes, I know sweetie. Have a hug, have a lazy day (or two), then when you feel better (can’t say it enough, you WILL) have a go at something that takes your fancy. No pressure.
4. Make sure you rule out physical factors that get in the way. Yes I’m unfit and depressed but the levels of tired I felt a couple of months back were off the scale. Sometimes you know deep down the difference between the sludge of depression and just plain old bone-aching exhaustion. If so get it checked out. My thyroid levels needed checking as it turned out; you could also need to check iron levels, underlying infection, inflammation, diabetes. If there is something it is usually easily treated, so why leave yourself with an unnecessary extra burden?
5. While you’re at the doctor’s, ask about talking therapies. CBT can help you tackle thoughts and feelings that are basically ruining your life and help you solve problems like how to build gentle activity into your routine. And tackling unhelpful thoughts about one thing can lift your mood a fraction, enough to make other things seem possible that just weren’t before.
6. Be patient. It might take years, medication, courses of therapy and a kick up the bum to get you into the place you need to be to make exercise an option.
For me it was chronic pain and health risks, and I might easily fall back into depression tomorrow for all I know. But hopefully, if and when that happens, I can build on what I feel are very real victories here and it will be that tiny bit quicker and less painful to help myself again.