Exercise and Depression

TAGS: depression, exercise, powerlifting, training

It seems to be a generally accepted fact that exercise has a positive impact on depression and anxiety. It releases endorphins, keeps the mind off negative subjects, encourages social interaction, increases confidence and body image, etc.

Anecdotally, this all makes perfect sense. However, there seems to be a small group of individuals that actually feel increased depression and anxiety because of exercise.

First, let's look at the "exercise is good" crowd.

Consider these articles:

This article clearly states:

The links between anxiety, depression and exercise aren't entirely clear...

WebMD, while not as reputable as the Mayo Clinic, draws an inaccurate conclusion. Exercise does not "treat" depression. It may help reduce it, but that is a far cry from a treatment. At best, it is good for "boosting mood."

Ah, Harvard. The assumed academic gold standard. This article sites examples of a study where three groups of depressed men and women participated. One group only exercised, the second took Zoloft, and the third did both. 60-70% of each group could no longer be classified as having clinical depression. Again, this is a far cry from anything concrete.

My point is, drawing absolute conclusions without more study is academically incorrect. The old psychologist maxims of sunshine, exercise, and proper eating are little more than stereotypes. They may help some, but they won't help all.

Chad is one of my on-and-off training partners. He and I have had many of the same experiences in life. He is a person who deals with depression. He claims that exercise actually has made his symptoms worse.

 

This subject interests me greatly, so I had this conversation to try to get to the bottom of it.

Chris: Give me a little history about your life, mental health, and lifting.

Chad: I started lifting off and on around the 6th grade, did winter and spring track in high school and worked out for health reasons at the gym in college. After finishing school, I slacked a little until I started competing in powerlifting. Now I am training with a hybrid strongman/powerlifting routine. As far as mental health, I honestly feel that I was misdiagnosed for years. For the longest  time therapists and my parents told me that I just needed exercise, to go out in the sun, or that it was normal around my teens to feel that way

Chris: To feel what way?

Chad: To feel depressed, as there wasn't much in life that seemed all that interesting or worth pursuing. As I got older and into college when most of that typical teenage depression was supposed to go away, mine didn't. In high school I was very active doing track in both the winter and spring. In college I just worked out for recreation. At that time (high school) I wasn't diagnosed. Anyone that I would talk to about it, including my doctor, brushed it off as normal teen thoughts and behavior.

Chris: Did you see different therapists and try different exercise routines?

Chad: Yes and yes, but I kept getting the same results. It wasn't until after college when I started seeing another therapist that I was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety. At this point in life I had gained so much weight that I was 320lbs at 5"4, 23 years old. I had just started my first "real" job and had moved out on my own.

Chris: Were you exercising? Surely there had to be other factors that contributed to that kind of weight gain.

Chad: At that time hardly. My life consisted of waking up, traveling on the train to a job I hated, coming home after work and going to bed at eight. As for meals it was usually whatever was fastest-- almost always something terrible but it allowed me to get back home quickly. This is where the depression and anxiety were at their worst.

Chris: What do you believe were the contributing factors (beyond your job) to not exercising and poor eating? Had the exercise staved off the depression in college at all? I'd think that if it even helped a little you would have kept it up.

Chad: It was the depression. Eventually it got to a point where I would say to myself "Why eat healthy? Why exercise? I'll still feel this way." It's always easier to just go home and hide from the world than deal with it. I think that in college exercise was more along the lines of something to do. My third year I did a lot of running with my girlfriend, and would go to the gym on my own. It seemed more like something to do in between classes. I never stuck to a schedule, so it's hard to say if it was positive or negative towards depression. However my overall emotion in college was pretty low, except for the time that I was exercising. Once that workout was over and I'd be back in my room, the sadness came back.

Chris: That brings me to the main point of the discussion: you believe that exercise actually increased your depression and anxiety? Why do you think that?

Chad: When I began to get serious about exercise, and when I started training for powerlifting and then later strongman, I would have some fantastic workouts where I would hit PRs and feel on top of the world. While at the gym I felt great. This feeling would start to fade after when I drove home, and then when I was home, or whever else I would be going, that great "high" was gone and was replaced with sadness. Regardless of the workout, whether it was good or bad, this feeling would be there.

Chris: To be more accurate, it sounds like you're saying exercise did help with your condition--if only temporarily. Is this correct?

Chad: Not really. The worst feelings I had were always after a competition. I could get first place, or last, and after I felt terrible. Not the type of terrible feeling you get when you feel you could have done better. I was always told never to leave anything on the platform so as to not question your attempts later. More along the lines of an empty, lonely feeling. In some ways I equate it to what John Belushi used to say about being a comedian: that when he was on stage and people were cheering and laughing, he was on top of the world, but as soon as the show was over and the laughter stopped, he felt all alone. When I'd attempt my lift and the crowd was cheering I felt invincible. Then you have to go back to reality a few hours later and it's a hard fall.

Chris: This was my point; it seems the depression is more from external factors rather than exercise.

Chad: Exercise did help while I was working out, correct. But almost as soon as I was done, the depression came back. This made it harder and harder to go back to the gym. Eventually I made a decision to just suck it up because I wanted to keep exercising, but when you have to battle the weights, and your own mind, it becomes that much harder to want to continue.

Chris: I've had the same types of problems. Generally, when things go wrong in my life, I absolutely destroy myself in the gym. I've never really thought about why. Do you do this, and if so, do you have any theories as to the reason?

Chad: Of course. I remember one time specifically when I was pissed about a girl and the way she told me she wasn't interested in me. I went to the gym that night with an "I'll show her" attitude and hit all PRs. In some ways I enjoy that because it's a natural drug that gets you going. But just as with real drugs when they wear off the reality sets in and whatever it was that you were upset about to begin with is still there. You have to go back to it when you're done lifting. I guess it could be subconcious, that I'm upset when I workout about something, train hard and it gets my mind off of whatever it is that's messed up, and when I'm done as soon as I walk out the door, regular life comes back without even realizing it.

Chris: I definitely see your point. What I want now is the bottom line: do you think exercise, in general, is good for dealing with depression and anxiety?

Chad: I think it's good for the time being. I deal with my depression and anxiety in other ways - therapy, medication, trying to keep busy and they seem to work. For all intents and purposes exercise should be no different, but it is. When I go out and spend time with my family or friends, I'm not sad after. When I get first place in a powerlifting competition, my depression is almost instant. There was a time that I thought it could have been related to using ephedra, but since I can't get the same dose as before, I haven't trained with it for many years. The only drugs I take now are zoloft and wellbutrin. Two drugs that work great for my everyday depression and anxiety, but seem to magically stop after I workout. This leads me to believe that medication, whether prescribed or supplements have nothing to do with how I feel after working out. I feel that exercise is good for dealing with situational depression and anxiety, but is by no means a "cure." If you had a bad day at work, just got dumped, or you're upset about any other situation in your life then nothing is better than dead lifting until you can't walk. If you're hoping that exercise will be your natural cure to comfort and happiness then it's probably best to keep looking.

Chris: Thanks, Chad.

In conclusion, I agree that parents, doctors, etc., who simply brush off people's depression as "normal," or who try to treat it with going outside or exercising, are missing the point. Clearly, as with Chad, there are individuals who do not benefit from exercise, and I think it would be worthwhile to find out why.

In addition, there is a feeling in this country that “everyone has something,” so it should be ignored. I believe that the reason there are so many more cases of mental health abnormalities are because of the following:

1)    Life is not the same as it was fifty years ago. There are many new challenges. Foreclosures, mandatory overtime, huge tax raises, etc., are stresses that previous generations did not have to cope with.

2)    Depression, anxiety, and other disorders were not understood as thoroughly as they are today.

3)    The “man up” mentality is going away. Some see this as a bad thing, but I think it's for the best. Denying emotions is not manly; it's just stupid.

Drug companies will admit that they don't know why their drugs work or don't work. This is quite telling. I think one should take caution when using psychotropic drugs, as well as with any other types of "treatments," such as exercise. If it's not working, find out why and try many new things. Just because something is mainstream does not make it correct.

For persons having these same issues, know that you are not alone.

If anyone would like to discuss this further, please contact me via the Q&A. I would like to talk to you.

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