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Beating Depression with Exercise

January, 2021


If you’ve found yourself in a slump these past months, you aren’t alone. Exercise can support mental wellness if you go about it skillfully. Image courtesy United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash.


It’s no secret that depression and anxiety are rampant these days. So many people worldwide are feeling the effects of the ongoing pandemic, and dealing with its many, varied results, not to mention other stressors. It can seem that there is so little in our lives that we can have influence over, exacerbating feelings of powerlessness and depression.

In addition to the range of standard therapeutic interventions like psychotherapy and medication, there’s something all of us can adopt that will help boost our mood: adding exercise to our routine. However, it pays to be skillful in trying this approach. Here are a few practical pointers for how to realistically approach exercise when you’re depressed.

When you’re just starting (or even simply trying) to emerge from your chrysalis, it’s important to be gentle with yourself and set modest, realistic goals. This extends to starting exercise while also dealing with depression. Image courtesy Miriam Fischer on Pexels.

If You’re Depressed, Set Small Exercise Goals
When someone is depressed, it’s crucial to have realistic expectations for how much exercise they are likely to be able to do. A depressed person isn’t merely being “lazy,” and can’t simply “snap out of it” and go run a marathon; there is a physiological cause at work. In severe cases, it can take significant effort merely to get up out of bed. Because of this, setting the bar low and taking a gentle approach is the most likely to yield good results.

Could you commit to taking a few deep breaths when you get out of bed? Or how about a little no-judgment, freestyle dancing?

Finding alternate ways to connect during COVID times can be a great boost to our well-being, both physical and mental. Image courtesy United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash.

Exercise in (Virtual) Company to Combat Isolation
Just like the “oomph” to easily get out of bed, both motivation and accountability can be hard to come by for people dealing with depression. I recently came across a great quote by Keith Johnsgård, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at San Jose State University and author of Conquering Depression & Anxiety through Exercise. “Having social support for exercise is crucial when you’re depressed,” he says. “A lot of folks won’t exercise on their own, so I tell patients to enlist a family member or good friend to be their exercise partner. It should be someone who is willing to help them...exercise every day.”

Participants in the online Gokhale Exercise program report a variety of benefits.

Considering the limitations of the pandemic, virtual fitness is a great option for connecting with others safely. If you have a low day you have the option to turn off your camera and still participate without “showing up” — you won’t have missed a session, and odds are you will feel all the better for it.

Exercise in ways that improve flow in your body
According to Chinese medicine, “liver Qi Stagnation” is a common contributor to depression. The solution is to get the Qi flowing; exercise and movement are important ways to make that happen. If you prefer to think in terms other than Chinese medicine, exercise stimulates both blood circulation and our natural “happy hormones”. At a moderate intensity, 20 minutes or so of exercise stimulates the body to release endorphins, giving the “runner’s high” that joggers so enjoy. 

Less talked about are the benefits of low-intensity exercise sustained over time. Even at this level, you can feel better because your brain chemistry changes. Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School writes "In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression." 

Just like the rest of nature, our bodies require a lack of impediments in order to function optimally. According to traditional Chinese medicine, getting your liver Qi flowing with exercise is one way to help clear the stagnation of depression. Image courtesy Tom Fisk on Pexels.

Some forms of exercise offer benefits beyond the usual and customary. Exercise that improves your body architecture, posture, and movement patterns, sets you up for benefits 24/7 — your flow is augmented even as you sleep, sit, and stand, and you are much more likely to proceed doing your daily activities with the same health-enhancing form.

In the Gokhale Exercise program, born on January 1, 2020, the focus is on one movement principle a day — this keeps it digestible and fun, even if you are starting off feeling a little (or a lot) glum. Even through a Zoom window, it’s possible to siphon a little of the high energy that has built in this community over the past year and uplift your mood. In addition to high spirits, the community is generous in sharing their discoveries, thoughts, and feelings. For many who have written emails to me, as well as for myself, the support has been invaluable through difficult times.

Would you like to let us do the heavy lifting and just show up to one of our daily programs? Change the course of your New Year with a new exercise program, new habits, and bolstered spirits. 

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It isn't a coincidence that 'being in a slump' and 'slumped over' have the same root origin. The more beaten down I look, the more beaten down I will eventually feel, and vice versa.

For me, it really is a case of 'fake it 'till you make it', and while the effort of presenting a positive front and exercising can feel exhausting when I'm down, the slow, eventual elevation of mood just from paying attention to my posture repays the effort. The better I feel about myself, the more able I am to exercise, which in turn elevates both my mood and my posture. When I don't feel I've got it in me to exercise, I first check my posture. 

Thanks for sharing! Tweaking one's posture does use some muscles and stretch others - perhaps we can say that healthy posture has some healthy exercise built into it?