Exercise and the Depressed Mind
The Elephant in the Gym
We have all heard about the benefits of exercise for overall health. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease, it can be a warrior against diabetes because it helps your body manage blood sugar and insulin levels better, it improves posture, and of course it can help fight off obesity. Though what is not often discussed is its effect on the brain. In fact, regular exercise has been used in clinical studies as an antidepressant and in some cases it has shown better results than Zoloft and other antidepressant medications. Depression is, understandably, a sensitive subject. I know, I’ve lived with it for most of my life. Though as someone who can attest that regular exercise can in fact save a life I cannot help but wonder why the conversation is not discussed more often. Well, no time like the present. The conversation about the effects of exercise on the depressed brain starts now.
Part 1: A Story with Hard Facts
As I mentioned, I’ve lived with depression for most of my life. The hard truth is that I have attempted suicide twice. The first attempt occurred during the summer I was 14. Had it not been for the Dolly Parton song, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, that came on the radio while I was in mid act, well…let’s just say there is a reason the lyrics are now tattooed on my left forearm. The second attempt occurred in my late 20s. Once again in mid-act, I got one look at the Dolly lyric tattoo on my forearm and from within a clarity got through the burning inferno of my brain and allowed enough time for me to call a friend who immediately came to my aid. The next day I turned myself into a clinic and asked for help, from there I began the rebuilding process. Depression is not something to be taken lightly or brushed off. Nor does it seem to truly ever go away because between the first suicide attempt and the second the thought of suicide had crossed my mind more times than I care to admit or reflect on.
Now, my career is that of a personal trainer, but that does not mean I’ve always been physically active. For the majority of my life I have had an on again off again relationship with health and fitness. When I attempted suicide at 14 I was also over 250lbs, loved a good 5 for $5 deal from Arby’s, mastered the art of “Netflix and chill” before Netflix was even a thing, and had not a clue what the difference between a barbell or dumbbell was. Not until a year later I would begin the journey of pursuing “healthy mind, body, and spirit”. Those blind beginnings included reading dozens of diet books and trying what they offered as solutions. By the end of most of them my only result was finding what Dolly Parton once said to be more than true, “I tried every diet in the book, often the book tasted better than the diet.” When I hit 18, after a flurry of trial and error, I finally managed to get down to 170 lbs. How? I simply adjusted my eating habits. Ate less, cut portions in half, and ate more from the earth and less from Nabisco. Nevertheless, my battle against a food addition and default behavior of emotional eating were just beginning.
As for exercise? Well, that was an even more difficult relationship since I grew up on a cattle farm in rural North Carolina with no access to an actual gym. At the start I made a makeshift gym in the woods behind our house using whatever resources I could find around the farm such as burlap sacks with rocks in them, rope, tree branches low enough to work as a pull up bar, and so forth. I also learned the art of bodyweight workouts which is still something I love today. It was not until I moved away to college that I finally had access to a fully functional gym. The summer leading up to my freshman year I was preparing myself for finally having a gym. I had a workout program lined up and all ready to start. I was determined to take my exercise to another level. Then I got to college and walked into the gym.
Fun fact about depression: It likes to hide off to stage left, only to make a impromptu return like Lucy Ricardo trying to get into the show dressed in a disguise. In my case, mine was finely dressed as paralyzing anxiety that demanded the stage as soon as I came into the college gym and saw all the athletes also in there working out. My well-laid fitness plans fell apart as that infamous inner voice began running incessantly, “Why are you here? You’re just a country hick without a damn clue. Look at all these toned and chiseled people who obviously belong here. You are not one of them. You never will be one of them. Leave. Leave right now. Get out! Get out, now!”
My anxiety won every time that first year of college. When I would finally think I was ready, I’d arrive to the gym, see everyone else who in my mind looked better and knew better, my body would begin shaking while my thoughts ran amok, and I would turn around and leave. To make matters worse, instead of just resuming my bodyweight exercises or trying to figure out a way to deal with the anxiety, I did what humans are prone to doing: I defaulted in my behavior. I once again found comfort in food, I stopped exercising all together, the weight slowly crept back up on me and the “Freshman 15” became “Freshman 50” for me. By my sophomore year I was miserable. Finally, I figured the only way to deal with the anxiety was to face it and force myself to stay at the gym no matter how much I wanted to run. So, I did. Eventually I managed to get back on track—for a while. This cycle would be the ongoing story of my 20s; get going, stop, gain weight, get depressed, get going again, stop, gain weight, get depressed. It was physically and mentally exhausting.
Part 2: The Turn-Around
By the time of my second suicide attempt at 28 I was in full self neglect. I had not been in the gym for nearly six months, I was thirty pounds heavier because I had discovered how much I loved Mexican food and just how comforting it was, add in a few other factors to the mix and a perfect storm was created that resulted in me experiencing a full physical and mental breakdown.
After I turned myself into the clinic I naturally was put onto an antidepressant to help me gain control of my thoughts and smother out the inferno that was my own brain. While yes the medication helped as it always did, there was something new tugging at me from within. I could not ignore that I had now survived a second attempt at taking my own life, therefore I felt deeply that if I was clearly meant to be here as it so seemed then something had to change. Two attempts, and I was still here; two hellacious battles won but the war was still on the horizon.
So, I did what I do best: I began to research and educate myself through whatever books I could get my hands on. Nothing clicked with me though, until, about two months into my research, I came across a book called, The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Dr. Stephen Ilardi. Dr. Ilardi, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, outlines a six-step process that all of us can utilize to help alleviate depression. What he found was that majority of depression cases could be traced back to environment: Humans were not designed to spend weekends “Netflix and chill”-ing all day while scrolling mindlessly through Instagram to then resume working indoors often in artificial light, sitting hours on end, all week to then go home and once again, “Netflix and chill”. Humans, by design, are meant to be active, exposed to natural sunlight, and let’s not even begin to discuss the modern day sleeping and eating habits of most Americans today, let’s just say that we were not designed to sleep a couple of hours only to be jacked up on two Red Bulls while waiting on Doordash to drop off a round of Taco Bell.
Dr. Ilardi list the six steps in his program as follows: Healthy Sleep, Stop Ruminating, Human Connection, Brain Food, Let There Be Light, and Movement is Medicine. Of the six, Dr. Ilardi considers Movement is Medicine to be one, if not the, most important. In fact, as it turns out, regular exercise can release natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) along with other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being.
While, all that was great to hear, the question still remained: What is the point if, like I was for most of my 20s, I could not even bring myself to get to the gym, stay there, let alone stick to a program? Not to mention the fact of when I read that regular exercise can serve as a natural antidepressant I begin to imagine what kind of regimen you’d have to perform to get the brain benefits. Images of grueling, hours long, high intensity, vomit inducing weight lifting workouts flashed across my mind. I saw myself near death due to running for hours on end—or not running at all after I was told to run for hours on end.
Turns out that is not the case.
Actually, a study conducted by Dr. Jim Blumenthal at Duke University found that patients who just took a brisk half-hour walk three times a week still got the beneficial brain effects that help fight depression. Even more remarkable is what Dr. Illari points out, “…this remarkably low ‘dose’ of exercise proved to be more effective than Zoloft in majority of patients.”
Ok, great, but what about that crippling fear due to “gym-idation” or just the horrifying idea of working out in public period rather that be in a gym or walking around the neighborhood?
Well, Dr. Ilardi suggested to his patients to start small with something that you enjoy. The key is to go out and find out what it is you like to do. After all, there is no sense in trying to exercise if you absolutely hate it. For me, all my life I have loved to swim so I found a gym that had a lap pool and began swimming again on a regular basis. It became almost mediative. However, swimming does not have to be your thing. Do you like to run? Bike? Yoga maybe? Get out and garden? If you do not know yet what it is exactly that you do enjoy then see that as a perfect opportunity to learn something new; challenge yourself in a different way. Go find out what it is then do it. Meet yourself there. Show up for you and not for anyone else. Will it always be easy? No. Will it be worth it? Definitely. Just set up small goals and go for it. When you achieve them, set more.
As for that business of not being able to hold oneself accountable and failing to follow through. Well, I took Dr. Illardi’s suggestion, one that I can say helped me begin again at 28 and eventually what lead to a career change in my 30s: I hired a personal trainer. For people struggling with depression, having someone to help give them a nudge to get up and get going can be a life changer—and in some cases, a life saver. Reduced initiative is a symptom of depression. In fact, a brain experiencing depression has an impaired ability to initiate activities, so those battling depression genuinely have a difficult time beginning anything new. Therefore, having someone to hold you accountable can be a huge benefit. An obvious choice of someone to partner up with would be a spouse, family member, or a close friend that you trust to hold you accountable. Though, if you do not have anyone in your life to fill that role, or if you are like me and painfully introverted to the point that you prefer to work hard but quietly so you can fail and fail again without much fanfare, then a personal trainer can fill the role.
For a year, I worked with a trainer three times a week for an hour. He called and texted the evening before each session to remind me that we were meeting the next day. What I hated at the time but appreciate now was that when he did this, he was telling me we were having a session, he was not asking if I still could, if that time still worked, etc, he was giving me no choice: I had to be there. Good thing too because in the beginning I wanted to cancel every time but I knew if I did I’d lose the money I invested which, as a twenty-something in Southern California, I could not afford to do. Plus, I found that I really did not want to disappoint my trainer. Honestly, he intimated the heck out of me. He came across to me as some sort of gatekeeper to the world of Total Mind, Body, and Spiritual Health that I had wanted to be a part of for so long and if I disappointed him even once then he would make sure I was going to be locked out forever.
So, I showed up until one day I realized the person I was now showing up for was myself.
Showing up is sometimes the hardest part, being able to get over that hurdle means you have scaled one of the most difficult mountains. It was that idea of helping others get over that mountain and find a sense of happiness and well being that brought me to changing my career entirely in my 30s and going back to school to become a personal trainer. Two years had passed since my break down and I was now regularly at the gym, showing up for myself four times a week, and happily staying anxiety and depression free in the process. As a bonus, the confidence I slowly gained in the gym by showing up day after day carried over into the rest of my life. I felt I had been given an opportunity to give back what I had been given. As Maya Angelou said, “When you get, give, when you learn, teach.” Becoming a trainer was an opportunity for me to help others learn how to better manage the issues I had faced such as overcoming food addictions, “gym-idation”, finding a healthier mind space, coping with anxiety and depression, and finding just a greater sense of peace overall within themselves.
As I said before, depression and everything that comes with it is not not something to joke about, make light of, or worst of all be silenced. Some cases are more crippling than others but each case is still just as important as the other. What I am presenting here is the idea that there is indeed hope and finding that hope is in your control because you yourself can help heal your brain and establish a better sense of well being. Often I felt very alone in my own battles over the years but let me be the first to say that you are never actually alone. If you feel that you are suffering from depression and/or have thoughts of suicide then reach out, get the support you need . It is ok to not be ok. Please, I ask this of you: Give yourself a chance. Read Dr. Illardi’s book yourself, see if anything else there resonates with you. It is ok if it doesn’t, go find something that does. Just know that you can do it.
Exercise did save my life and in turn, yes, I did become a personal trainer with the hope of being able to save others in the same way. I know the idea of getting up and getting started sounds unappealing, but give yourself that fighting chance; it will be worth it. And as a final note, if you find yourself coming into a gym and looking around intimidated and unsure only to experience thoughts that leave you desiring to do nothing more than to turn around and leave: Don’t. You are not alone out there on that gym floor; for almost all of us have an elephant in the gym that we don’t want to talk about. Find a friend to go with or put in headphones and turn on music that inspires and motivates you. Just keep moving forward. And if by chance you walk into a gym where I am a trainer or even just doing my own personal workout, come talk to me, ask me anything you want to know and we will take care of those elephants together.
written by Justin ‘JJ’ Jacobs
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Stephen Ilardi you may visit his page on the University of Kansas website here:
And you can learn more about his book, The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs, by visiting Amazon at the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Depression-Cure-6-Step-Program-without/dp/0738213888