Nobody doubts the benefits of exercise for physical health.
What isn’t as widely known or discussed is how essential moderate exercise is to our mental well-being. I created an online survey which sought to find out what health strategies helped people who have experienced an episode of depression or anxiety to bounce back from setbacks. I took a holistic approach, and asked people to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies such as exercise, good rest, good nutrition, emotional support from family, friends, and support groups, fulfilling work, hobbies, charity work, as well as traditional approaches like psychological counseling and medication. In all, over 60 strategies were evaluated, and 4,080 respondents were asked to rate those they had tried. Exercise was in the top three.
Research shows that a 30-minute brisk walk (or equivalent) significantly improves your mood after 2, 4, 8, and 12 hours compared to those who don’t exercise (Mayo Clinic, 2008). Exercise also boosts energy, confidence, and sexual desirability (American Fitness, 19 (6), 32-36).
We can’t control the slings and arrows that come our way on a daily basis, but we can control our daily habits. Incorporating moderate exercise into our day can inoculate us from the prolonged effects of a setback.
Why Don’t People Exercise?
People usually give two main reasons for failing to exercise:
- I don’t feel like it. (This is particularly applicable to people who are discouraged or depressed.)
- I don’t have the time. (Our relentless 24/7 life usually means there are a thousand things to say “yes” to. An essential element of a thriving life is saying “no” to the trivial many, so that you can say “yes” to the vital few. Exercise is definitely in the latter category.)
Principles to Make Exercise Central to Your Life
Find something you enjoy. To sustain regular exercise, it is important to do something that you find pleasant. The traffic in gyms is 30 to 50 percent higher in January than other times of the year, as people are suddenly inspired to get fit and lose weight. By March, they have returned to normal levels. It’s not wise to sign up for a gym if you hate them!
I like walking because it allows me to get out in nature, it’s free, and you can do it anyplace and anytime. Some people keep a walking journal so that they can write down the new things they see, hear, and smell each day. This keeps you present. If you prefer swimming, dancing, cycling, boot camps, or hiring a personal trainer, then do that. To experience the mood enhancement qualities of exercise it is recommended to do 30 minutes, 6 days per week. Although people with depression often don’t feel like exercising, it is important to go against that inclination.
Have modest goals. Many people believe that to get the benefits of exercise you have to spend two hours in the gym or run a marathon. As highlighted above, this is simply not true. If you have been doing no exercise, start with 15 minutes per day. If you are catatonic and spending all day in bed, just getting out to the mailbox each day is a good start that you can build on. Build activity gradually.
Introduce rituals. Changing behavior requires more than intention. To make it stick, it is essential to introduce daily rituals that prompt the behavior. For example, rituals could include:
- Laying out clothes each night when you go to bed so that when you wake up you can dress without thinking and get on with your day.
- As you brush your teeth each morning, put on a pedometer. When you brush at night, take it off and record the steps taken.
- Set a regular time to walk with a friend or work colleagues. Consider walking meetings.
- Consider using a free smartphone app like FitnessPal, which allows you to monitor your exercise and your calorie consumption.
It’s never too late to start.
Graeme Cowan is the author of BACK FROM THE BRINK TOO: Helping your loved one overcome depression, which was SANE Australia’s 2009 Book of the Year. He went through a five-year episode of depression which his psychiatrist described as the worst he had ever treated. He now speaks and consults about how to inspire the discouraged to bounce back and thrive. Over 40 free resources can be found at www.Facebook.com/BackFromTheBrink.