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.