Exercise and depression – my experience

I was quite interested to read in the papers last week about some research into exercise and depression which appeared to have found that exercise does not help depression. Reading into it a bit further, it appears that this is NOT necessarily what the research found at all. Instead, it found that interventions to encourage people to exercise did not have much long-term impact, which isn’t quite the same thing.

It led me to think about my own experience of exercise and depression last year. When I’d heard the snippet on the radio news about the report, the first thing I quipped was that the researchers obviously hadn’t ‘prescribed’ Zumba as the exercise to try out! Obviously, this was a joke, but it was also a reflection of how useful Zumba had been to me last autumn.

Around the time I started this blog – and a little bit before – I hit a really bad patch. I was burned out, tired, had had a bad experience with a consultant and altogether, pretty down. I was struggling to function with everyday things, crying a lot and it was a massive effort just to get out of bed. I really didn’t want to see or be with people and I couldn’t stop obsessing about the horrible consultant, or about my palindromic rheumatism.

About the same time I’d found a local Zumba class and had started going as I’d previously really enjoyed it as a form of exercise. I found that it really lifted my spirits and that I really enjoyed myself during the class. When I realised how depressed I’d become, I sat down and wrote myself an action plan. I decided to stop pressuring myself to do any work and cleared the decks for at least a month to concentrate on my recovery. Exercise and going to Zumba was an important part of that recovery. I also decided to see the Dr and to ask for anti-depressants. Although I’ve been depressed a number of times before, and for substantially longer, I had never taken antidepressants, but this time, I felt that I needed them.

The GP asked me the standard questions about depression – about my eating and sleeping habits, about my energy levels, difficulty concentrating and about my mood. She also asked me about enjoyment and pleasure – whether I was getting any. “Yes” I said, “but only during Zumba class”. “And is there anything you look forward to?” she asked. I struggled to think of anything I was looking forward to before answering “Yes! My Zumba class!” The Dr decided (perhaps on the strength of these two answers) not to prescribe anti-depressants, to recommend counselling and advised me to keep continue going to Zumba.

While I wouldn’t be as flippant as to say that Zumba ‘cured’ my depression, it was an important element in my recovery. There were some days where I spent the whole day in bed crying, but for a whole hour during Zumba, I stopped. Sometimes I even felt happy. Even if it was only fleeting, those moments of pleasure and happiness were a light during a dark time. I prioritised going to the classes, saw an excellent counsellor, started the blog, took St John’s Wort and started meditating again. I also told everyone I knew and was very open about being depressed. I felt that it meant that I did not have to put on an act, which was an additional pressure I did not want.

Gradually, probably because of ALL of those things, the darkness lifted and I realised that I was no longer depressed. Would I have recovered as quickly without my exercise fix? We’ll never know. I do know that I didn’t go to Zumba because the Dr had told me to. I went because I enjoyed it.  I went because the morning classes gave me a reason to get out of bed, to get dressed and to leave the house. I knew that if I did not do those things, then I would not get my ‘happy fix’.

I believe that people’s relation to exercise is very individual – lots of people on the Guardian blog quote exercising outdoors or running as their saviour. Although I cycled throughout my depression, and it did make me feel good, it didn’t have the same emotional or physical impact on me as the Zumba. It wasn’t just ‘exercise’ that helped me, it was the type of exercise I’d chosen. My class is a dance class with a friendly atmosphere and a great teacher with a sense of fun. Not someone shouting at us to move our bodies or feel the burn, but someone who encouraged us to laugh along and to enjoy ourselves. It was also an exercise which gave me positive feelings about my body when part of the root of my depression was negative feelings about my body and my PR. Would the gym have given me an equivalent ‘high’. I very much doubt it? In fact, I suspect it may have made me feel worse!

I don’t see the counsellor any more – in fact, just a few sessions with her were enough. But I am still meditating and needless to say, still Zumba-ing. Even though I’m a lot happier in myself, my Zumba fix is still crucial for both my physical AND emotional well being. It’ll take more than a bunch of scientists to convince me otherwise.


7 responses to “Exercise and depression – my experience

  1. I suffered from depression during my postgraduate studies few years ago. I had so much turmoil (family related) going on that the pressure to perform and be my best plunged me into a fear of failure and eventually feeling like a complete failure (although nothing had happened that i failed in, it was all in my head). I saw little point in anything and had awful panic attacks so strong they felt very real. I was so lucky to have wonderful counselling from the university support service but what really helped me to start gaining control again were my yoga classes and my drawing life classes.

    I felt it was just me, I enjoyed them and no-one was there to judge me, ask me questions, mark me. I remember thinking “it’s ok I have my life drawing class this Tuesday” and went from one week to another, couldn’t handle more than that.

    I think that any form exercise but also activity that makes us feel good, even briefly, has to play a vital role in getting better. I gave myself a chance to try those activities, they were not prescribed but I’m so grateful to them, they brought me back to earth, after having been in a really dark place.

    L xxx

    (it really feels good writing this. Never told this to anyone before. Thank you)

  2. It’s all very personal what exercise if any a person enjoys. I’m a pretty solitary person, and exercising with any sort of group is a big turn off. I also have double joints so I risk dislocations and strains if I do push myself. I cycle to work, and that often is a big help to get me to face the day. I also walk a lot.
    One thing I found myself wondering about whether one of the vital components in exercise may be the surroundings: for you, the friendly atmosphere and the lighthearted and encouraging instructor seems key. For me, being alone in nature, helps as much as the walking, running or cycling.
    My concern is the way many people take one aspect like exercise(or medication or counselling or….) and make that their touchstone for their “cure”.
    I am so happy you have something that has lifted you this way, and long may it do so.

  3. So great to read such a positive story of recovery and I hope you continue onwards and upwards.
    Personally I’ve never had that buzz from exercise of any kind, if anything it makes me worse so I tend to avoid it when I feel low because it often pushes me over the edge.
    You’re so right that it’s individual and down to the type of exercise and other things too. Fabulous post.

  4. Thanks for your nice comments about the blog and for sharing your own experiences. I was very nervous about posting this particular post so I’m very grateful that it’s been well received.

  5. Hi Ruth, I’d love to go to Zumba, but think I need to wait until my meds have kicked in before I can commit! It’d mean a lot of organisation (have a toddler) to get to any of the classes locally, and on that day, it’d be just my luck that I’d have a PR flare! Anyway… Your post has inspired me to (perhaps ;o)) invest in a Zumba DVD for when said toddler is in bed, and I’m feeling well! Nutty x

  6. Good luck with the DVD Nutty. I definitely find it helps me feel more positive about the bits of my body that work – even when there are bits that aren’t working! for example, some times my shoulder is bad so I can’t use both hands for the hands in the air sort of things, but I just concentrate on enjoying the fact that my legs are working! likewise, sometimes my knees are bad, but I make sure I don’t jump too much and are kind to them, and then concentrate on my hips and arms! I think that I love the music so much and like moving to it, so even when there are pains and flare ups, I try and go. Even if you can’t get into a DVD, you could try dancing to your favourite music – I do that sometimes too (with the curtains closed!) – and it cheers me up a bit.

  7. I’ve never suffered from depression, thank goodness, but know many, many people who have. I have certainly suffered from ‘low mood’ though and find that exercise really does help to pull me out of it. Unfortunately I’m a big lumpy couch potato and motivating myself to exercise is usually somewhere close to impossible!

    Nice to find someone else that digs a bit deeper into this reported research and realises how badly it’s been reported – sad that it is reported badly so often!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s