Drug rehab, AA, non-fame whoring parents, a decent meal and clothing other than leggings and mini skirts – these are all things that would considerably increase Lindsay Lohan’s standard of living (and let’s be honest, odds of survival). But according to new research, what Lindsay really needs is an exercise intervention. Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Michael Otto, psychology professor at Boston University, did a comprehensive meta analysis of the existing research on depression, anxiety and exercise and concluded that “Exercise is a magic drug!” when it comes to treating mood disorders. Did you catch that? It’s MAGIC. I love me a scientist who isn’t afraid of a little hyperbole. Heaven knows the research world needs more fairy godmothers and small singing mammals. Heck it could probably even put the pecked-out eyes and chopped off toes to good use.
For all my nattering on of late about how exercise has made me crazy, or rather how I’ve made myself crazy with too much exercise, I sometimes forget to mention how much exercise has helped me manage my mental health issues. One of the first things I noticed about fitness – and perhaps the thing that spurred my well-documented addiction – is how much better it made me feel. About everything! I am in my absolute best mood of the day during and right after my workout. There’s almost nothing that a good hard run can’t sweat out of me. (Along with my daily dose of Gym Buddy therapy. Just don’t spring anything to deep on them while they’re spotting you on the chest press. Yes, I know this from experience.) For a girl who has suffered as long as I can remember from some permutation of depression or anxiety, this is a big deal. One might even say it’s magic.
The formula for all this feel-goodness is pretty easy to see. “Exercise appears to affect, like an antidepressant, particular neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and it helps patients with depression re-establish positive behaviors. For patients with anxiety disorders, exercise reduces their fears of fear and related bodily sensations such as a racing heart and rapid breathing.” True story: it’s really hard to feel a panic attack when your heart is already pounding at 175 bpm.
Now: raise your hand if these findings were a surprise to you. I thought not. Most of us have heard by now that exercise makes us feel better. So why isn’t every crazy person jumping on the triathlon train and whipping themselves in the best mental and physical shape of their lives?
Have you ever been depressed?
Those of you who have had a bout of clinical depression know that throwing on some body conscious clothing and jumping around with a bunch of perky strangers is about as likely to happen as Joe Biden remembering that he is miked 23 hours of the day. When you are seriously depressed or crawling out of your skin with anxiety (the way I like to put it is that I feel like I was born with my skin on inside out) exercise can feel like an impossible task. So the real question isn’t how to convince people that exercise will help ameliorate the symptoms of their mood disorder but rather how to actually get the people moving.
Smits explains, “Rather than emphasize the long-term health benefits of an exercise program — which can be difficult to sustain — we urge providers to focus with their patients on the immediate benefits,” he says. “After just 25 minutes, your mood improves, you are less stressed, you have more energy — and you’ll be motivated to exercise again tomorrow. A bad mood is no longer a barrier to exercise; it is the very reason to exercise.”
While he’s a little too perky with his bumper-sticker cute conclusion, he makes a good point: mentally ill people are very bad at thinking long term. It’s hard enough dealing with our now, how are we going to find any energy to deal with the future? And yet, I can personally attest to validity of Smits’ recommendations. Exercise really will help you feel better. And almost immediately. It’s not like losing weight where you may have to exercise for quite a while – research says it takes a woman’s body about 3 weeks of consistent exercise to finally start letting go of her fat stores – you can see positive results with your mood instantaneously.
So what can you do to help yourself or a loved one overcome those initial hurdles and exercise? Telling them won’t be enough. We know.
Suggestions for Motivating a Depressed and/or Anxious Person to Exercise
1. One popular tip given in many magazine articles is the 5 minute rule. Tell yourself that if you exercise for 5 minutes and you still don’t feel like doing it, then you can quit. This method is banking on the fact that if you’ve already gotten dressed and out the door, you’re 90% of the way to a workout.
2. Go with a friend – preferably one who is not also mood disordered – who will drag you kicking and screaming if needs be.
3. Get a dog. Pets in and of themselves have been shown to help people feel more positive and calm but a dog needs to be walked daily. Sometimes if people aren’t able to do it for themselves, they can do it for a beloved pet.
4. Start small. Sure 45 minutes of interval sprints and weight circuits will blast a ton of fat, give you a great pump and allow you to listen to bad 80’s metal without feeling stupid but a nice walk in the fresh air will be just as good for your mood. Or possibly better, depending on your feelings about Guns-n-Roses.
That’s all I could come up with. Have you ever used exercise to help your mood disorder? What tips do you have to help someone struggling with depression or anxiety get into exercise? Pour some sugar on me: How do you feel about Guns-n-Roses? (Correction: Apparently Guns N’ Roses does NOT sing “Pour some sugar on me”. The commenters have informed me it is Def Leppard. It’s true: I do not know my ’80’s hair bands well enough!)