Running From Our Demons: The Truth About Exercise And Mental Health
The Debrief: If you’re feeling utterly defeated by depression it’s not necessarily achievable to just get up and run 10 miles, no matter how much you might want to.
Thankfully, gone are the days when mental illness was the ignored illegitimate sibling to ‘real’ physical ailments. Nowadays, more and more people are coming forward to shine a light on the varied array of mental health problems so many of us face. This can only be a positive thing, indeed I’m sure some such accounts have saved lives. I know that the self-identification I have found in recent years with certain articles has been part of the journey that ultimately saved mine.
For me, though, talking about my own struggle with depression has remained, until recently, a relatively private thing. There were a handful of friends who knew it got pretty bad, but even to them, I wasn’t admitting the frequency and severity with which I was suffering under this dark cloud. New lows became new normals, to the point where almost daily bouts of bursting into hopeless tears and thoughts about suicide were just part of the fabric of my days, to the point where a day without thinking about killing myself was a ‘good’ day. If you met me, you’d probably never know this though.
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As a fitness professional, it’s my job to be upbeat and positive, bouncing around offering noisy encouragement against the backdrop of strobe lights and grime music. No matter how shit I feel, it is my job to get up and do that, day after day, in the park or in the studio, and I’m good at it. I can switch it on…just like that. This, I now know, is what’s sometimes referred to as masked depression. It’s the type of depression that affects performers, outwardly sociable, centre-of-attention types who don’t fulfill the somewhat damaging stereotype of spending days under the duvet crippled by self-loathing. Instead, those suffering from this type of depression allow that self-loathing to fester away on the inside whilst they hold court, silently suffering until they can go home again and shut the world out once more.
And that's how it's been for me. For years. And yet I was utterly convinced that I could fix my own mental health. I tried all the things: training for marathons, daily meditation, quitting drinking, drinking more, seeing a therapist, working out for several hours a day, changing countries, quitting my desk job, working outside, new hobbies, new friends, deleting social media, dating, not dating.
And then recently I got to a point where I realised that all the things, in whatever combination, were not working. Despite years of fighting it, I ended up going to my doctor and being prescribed antidepressants for the first time in my life.
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There is an increasingly prevalent narrative which talks about exercise as a treatment for depression. Don’t get me wrong, exercise isn’t just important, it’s necessary for your physical and mental health, it does boost your mood, but it is not a cure and should not be couched as one. Let's be clear: exercise is an important part of helping to alleviate the symptoms of depression as part of a holistic treatment plan which can also include talking therapies and medication but, regardless of what Instagram may suggest, it's not a cure in and of itself.
That’s why, right now, it feels important to me to talk candidly about the real relationship between depression and exercise. So much weight is put on the miraculous properties of exercise to cure all of our mental ills. I get it. I love exercise, I certainly experience that runner’s high after a long run or a race, I do feel better if I push myself in a workout and sweat it out, but sometimes that high is so incredibly fleeting, and sometimes the expectations I set myself of a workout are too much and I quit early in feverish anxiety, feeling lower than when I started. Other times I’ll use it to put off finding an actual solution to something, working out several times a day because it’s easier than just sitting with my own uncomfortable thoughts, surprised to find they’re still there when I get home. And, then, sometimes I put so much pressure on myself to work out when I can barely drag myself out of bed that I end up feeling even worse about myself as it becomes just another task I have failed at that day, another reason I am useless.
The studies are varied and conflicting. This study, published in the British Medical Journal in 2012, found that exercise did not reduce symptoms of depression any more than anti-depressants did. However, this much smaller study found the opposite. It’s worth noting that the second study collected data from fewer people over a shorter period of time so, really, they aren’t comparable’ but when people say ‘exercise helps depression’ they don’t necessarily fill you in on the exact methodology of the research they’re looking at.
The problem, as I see it, is that exercise is presented to us all as something we should be doing to ‘feel well’ and shouting loudly about it on social media. But, if you’re doing it to try and improve your mental health and it doesn’t work, it implies that you’re a failure when, in fact, the science suggests quite the opposite.
I’ve postulated before on the problems of fitness and social media, and I don’t want to bang on about it again, but this idea of: ‘get up, get out, sweat a lot, feel great’ is just not always sustainable. For one, if you’re feeling utterly defeated by depression it’s not necessarily achievable to just get up and run 10 miles, no matter how much you might want to. It also sets the precedent that if that burst of serotonin doesn’t fix things then maybe you just need to do more, go further, go harder, go again, which can sometimes end up going against the self-care philosophy we were trying to employ in the first place.
It’s also important to choose the right workout for how you’re feeling, and not just the one that is trending at the moment. A frantic HIIT boot camp session might be the most popular and easiest to find in a big city (I teach them, they’re great, a lot of the time), but your head might need yoga, or a long swim- a way to look inward and figure out how you’re feeling whilst moving. Other times you might need something focused like boxing or climbing- an activity where you allow yourself more of a mindful, moving meditation where the concentration necessarily needs to centre in on the task in hand, allowing your mind to still and settle. There are also times when we need to work out alone and times when we need to show up to a running group or local sports team practice to reconnect on a more human level whilst getting those endorphins. A long-term goal like a marathon or a triathlon can help to keep us motivated and driven when the days feel a bit hopeless, as long as we don’t give ourselves too much of a hard time if we miss a workout or don’t quite hit the weekly mileage from time to time. Choose wisely though, mix it up, always figure out what your head needs as well as your body.
Exercise is brilliant, it is good for you, physically and mentally, but it cannot cure all of the problems we might face. Modern life comes with its fair share of stresses and worries and sometimes the added pressure of feeling like we have to keep up with a certain unattainable level of fitness is more of a hindrance than a help, so whilst finding the right activities and the right goals is really important, it’s also important be realistic about the curative powers of exercise. If you start to notice that that runner’s high isn’t quite cutting it in the way it used to, talk to somebody. The danger is that we run and run away from our problems without ever really starting to move towards a solution. That’s what I did for so many years. Now I’m still running but I’m no longer trying to get away from what I’m really dealing with. And that’s why I want to talk about it now so that we don’t allow exercise to become part of the problem, or expect it to be the sole solution.
People go on and on about balance. It’s annoying because they are right. Finding a healthy balance between working out, sleeping, eating pretty well, talking about my depression instead of hiding away, not drinking too much, not giving myself too hard of a time about being a useless human, taking my meds when I need to, being sociable when I don’t want to -it turns out this is, in fact, the way forward, and striking that middle ground is something I’ll be working towards forever, but at least it finally feels like I’m on the right track.
Georgie is a personal trainer, fitness instructor, and presenter
If you're suffering from any of the issues discussed in this article you can find professional and confidential help here
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