My husband and I live with five dogs, and for a brief spell almost 10 years ago, there were actually seven of those four-legged creatures (plus one cat) under our roof. I’m the sort of person who loves to get e-mailed pictures of cute doggies . . . and who has been known to rescue an endangered puppy.
But there’s one kind of canine I simply can’t stand.
The “black dog” that Winston Churchill knew so intimately.
I’m talking about depression—the one “dog” I hate having in my life.
If you’ve ever had that life-sucking, joy-draining beast on your back, you know what I’m talking about.
I’m going to get personal for a minute and say that depression and I are old adversaries. I’ve grappled with that dog, off and on, since I was 14 years old.
And that’s not so unusual. At any given time, 9 percent of Americans are depressed—including 4 percent who are struggling with major depression. The incidence is much higher among women, up to 30 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Much more is known today about depression than when I was a teenager. And thank God there are now numerous medications that can help relieve depression.
But believe it or not, studies have repeatedly shown that exercise can also make a profound difference in mood disorders.
I’m not saying that if you exercise you can just throw away your Prozac. I am saying that whether or not you’re taking medication, adding even a small amount of movement to your routine can help.
In my own life, the times when I’m faithful to my exercise regimen are the times when I feel like “the real me.” I’m energetic, optimistic, and emotionally on an even keel.
If I fall off the exercise wagon, for whatever reason, that black dog comes sneaking back.
OK, I know what you might be thinking—that when you’re so depressed you can hardly get off the couch, it’s impossible to imagine going to the gym.
I get that.
Fortunately, you don’t need anything that rigorous to start doing yourself some good. And it’s much, much better to do anything than nothing.
Dr. Jim Phelps, the author of Why Am I Still Depressed? (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and creator of the excellent psycheducation.org website, points out that despite their depression, “most people can still walk.”
On his site, he shares the recommendation of Dr. Gary Sachs, leader of the Harvard Bipolar Program: “Here’s your exercise program: go to the door, look at your watch. Walk 7.5 minutes in any direction, then turn around and walk home. Do that five days a week at least.”
Could you do that if you had faith it would help relieve your depression?
Here’s what one woman (quoted on Dr. Phelps’s website) had to say about making the effort: “It is very difficult to walk etc. when one is suffering depression, but I have forced myself out the door many times, knowing from experience I will feel better when I return home.”
And actually, any form of cardio or strength training is probably going to be equally effective in improving mood, according to The Harvard Mental Health Letter.
Here’s a quote from the publication: “Many reviews and meta-analyses show that regular physical activity is correlated with improvement in clinical depression and anxiety, mild to moderate depressive symptoms, insomnia, and resilience under stress. People who become or remain physically fit or active are less likely to develop clinical depression.”
I’m just one example—but I’m living proof that a regular exercise regime can make a night and day difference in your quality of life.
If you’re being hounded by that black dog, give exercise a try. Begin with baby steps. Ask a friend to go with you. Just start.