Throughout his life, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered from depression, a disease he described as the “Black Dog.” Having wrestled with it myself since childhood, I can say with some authority that there’s no more apt description. Although its presence has lessened over the years as I’ve “done the work,” there are still mornings when I awake to find my own, private Black Dog waiting for me at the foot of the bed, its mournful stare setting the tone for the entire day. In my youth, it would follow me for weeks or months, becoming bigger and more menacing the more I tried to ignore it. Today, I have fixes that shorten its stay.
I’m one of those fortunate depressives who can find solutions without pharmaceuticals—although it takes effort. So when the Black Dog visits, after I’ve dealt with my usual daily tasks like watering and feeding my charges, feeding and watering myself, and sending a few work emails so that I appear productive (all challenging tasks on a bad day), I slide into my cycling kit, clip on my shoes and helmet, hop on my bike, and head out on the road for some therapy.
Although anyone who’s ever gone for a walk to clear their head already knows this, the notion that exercise fights depression is fairly well established. A review of 25 studies in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine unveiled strong evidence of its preventative benefits, even if that exercise is just light cardio a few hours each week. Does that make it a great way to shake the occasional “blahs”? You bet! Will it cure you if you have a major issue? Probably not. “Exercise doesn’t necessarily solve the whole problem,” says Sport & Exercise Psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus, “but it alleviates a lot of the day-to-day symptoms.”
And, as anyone who’s ever dealt with depression knows, alleviating those day-to-day symptoms the Black Dog presents can be incredibly powerful, so exercise should surely be one of the primary tools in your psychological toolbox.
What is Depression?
There are many shades of depression, but it’s best defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” There are a number of possible causes, including brain chemistry, hormone imbalances, genetics, and life trauma. It can range from temporary melancholy to lifelong clinical depression. Triggers are also varied. Major events such as death of a loved one or divorce may cause it. Many mothers experience postpartum depression. Some people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, meaning they’re actually impacted by a lack of sunlight. Others—as is my case—simply wake up some mornings feeling rotten without being 100% certain why (although I can usually dig up the root cause with a good meditation session).
One tricky aspect of depression is that people who’ve never experienced it have a hard time sympathizing. It’s not like diabetes or a heart condition, with easily comprehensible pathology. You don’t just “snap out” of a depression and you should never write off a friend or family member’s depression as something that’ll just pass. Speaking firsthand, there’s a lot of ugly stuff floating around in your gray matter when you’re having an episode—including thoughts that can lead to choices seemingly illogical to the outside observer. Case in point, the recent—and very tragic—death of comedian Robin Williams.
So, it’s important to address the issue head-on, typically with therapy, medication, or some combination thereof. There are also a number of practices that can help, including meditation, journaling, self-help books, and the focus of this article: exercise.
How Does Exercise Help?
Exercise makes you feel good. Yes, it can also make you feel sore and exhausted—but in a good way, on many different levels.
For one, it has a direct, chemical impact on your brain. How this happens isn’t 100% understood, but in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey does a great job at fleshing out the various hypotheses, which all seem to center around the way exercise impacts your brain in much the same ways antidepressants do.
The first theory is that both boost endorphins, the morphine-like hormones responsible, at their most extreme, for the “runner’s high.”
Another theory looks at neurotransmitters, chemicals in your brain responsible for ushering various specific signals to where they need to go. For example, norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that helps you focus in stressful situations, including exercise. With it, you make smarter choices. Another neurotransmitter, dopamine, motivates you and improves your mood in general. When you exercise, it pushes you to work harder. Serotonin is also released when you exercise, but it has the opposite influence. It improves mood like dopamine, but it mellows you out, counteracting the various stress hormones activated by exercise and helping you wind down after a workout.
These neurotransmitters are boosted in various degrees by various antidepressant medications. They’re also boosted by exercise.
Both antidepressants and exercise also increase a substance called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which protects the brain against the damaging effects of the stress hormone cortisol. It also helps the brain stay strong in general. As Ratey puts it, it serves as a “fertilizer that encourages neurons to connect to one another and grow.” It’s been found to be low in depressed patients.
Beyond your cranial chemistry, exercise also helps you feel good about yourself from a psychological standpoint. Working your body is a choice you make to better yourself, so doing it makes you feel better about yourself. It’s a process that Dr. Perlus refers to as “coping self-esteem,” a way of proving to yourself that you have at least some control over your life. “If I go outside for a walk, or put on a DVD and do ten minutes of core work, that’s a choice I made to help myself and I got through it, and that increases my coping self-esteem,” she explains, “and that’s as important as all the serotonin, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters I’ve released.”
But there’s a catch. For exercise to work like this, it needs to be something you actually dig. “It needs to be something you choose, that brings you joy otherwise it won’t help from a depression standpoint,” Perlus adds. This is yet another reason why when people ask me which fitness program will give them the best results, I tell them to pick the one that looks the most fun.
Does Exercise Replace Antidepressants and Therapy?
If you’re temporarily down in the dumps, exercise alone might do the trick. “If you’re having a depressed mood because something negative happened in the day, but you generally have a positive outlook on life, then exercise would be my primary recommendation,” says Dr. Perlus.
But if it’s a persistent or intense depression, the answer is no. Depression is a serious medical issue and, like all medical issues, your best path is to seek professional help. Explains Perlus: “When we’re talking about clinical depression, while exercise is an important tool for relieving depression, you need to balance it out with all the other tools. Some people do need to be medicated. I’m a high advocate of talk therapy.”
Dr. Perlus isn’t alone in recommending exercise be part of your healing strategy. It’s become a common prescription for depression in Europe and in 2013, the Journal of Psychiatric Practice laid out information for doctors wishing to include prescriptive exercise in their recommendation. The guidelines call for exercise 3–5 times a week (more wouldn’t hurt) for 45–60 minutes. 10–12 weeks of this are needed for maximum anti-depressive effect. Although this is a good starting place, other recommendations vary. Also keep in mind that research shows inactivity to increase the occurrence of depression. In other words, it doesn’t matter which exercise you do to beat the blues. But, by all means, get off your butt and do it.
I fought depression for years on my own. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when I embraced therapy and discovered my passion for outdoor sports, that solutions presented themselves. After years of work, I’ve reached a point where exercise and meditation are my primary sources of depression management.
Today, I know that when the Black Dog randomly visits—or if life issues a blow that knocks me to my knees—getting on that bike is key. (Sometimes it’s the surfboard, kayak, or yoga mat, but you get the idea.) Rolling for miles and miles on an open road, feeling my legs burn as I strain up hills, racing fellow cyclists to the nearest stop sign, these things don’t solve my problems, but they put my brain in a place where I can cope with the issues. When I come home, sweaty, exhausted, hungry, and (sometimes) smiling, the Black Dog might not be gone, but he’s no longer a threat. I now have the strength to simply acknowledge him and go about my day—and that’s the best way to make him go away.