This past January, a psychiatrist wrote me an unexpected prescription that finally succeeded in pulling me out of two and a half years of depression. It was not for an SSRI or any other anti-depressant that comes in pill form. It was a prescription for exercise. Although I had to visit with the staff psychiatrist in order to begin grief counseling at the local hospital, I really wasn’t expecting much more than an offer of pills. Call me cynical. So I was surprised when he not only suggested exercise, but wrote me a prescription. He surmised (correctly) that the only way I’d actually follow doctor’s orders was if we put it in writing.
It took me a while to digest this information, and I won’t say I immediately started exercising every single day (in fact, I still don’t), but I did start walking and jogging with the dog and by February, I had purchased a bike and started training for the 2009 Colorado Bike MS Ride. Those first few rides were daunting–I had let my fitness lapse to the point where even riding 10 miles was exhausting. Add the kids in the trailer, and those 10 miles took about an hour and really wiped me out.
Despite the exhaustion, the sore muscles, and embarrassment of my then-four-year-old son yelling from the bike trailer, “Hey Mommy, why can’t you keep up?” when I lagged behind my more-fit friends on a ride, I kept going. And I started to feel better. I started to sleep better, had more energy, and had fewer episodes of feeling blue, angry, or hopeless. By April, after a six-month round of bi-weekly sessions with the grief counselor, I felt well enough to stop going.
I completed the 2-day 150 mile Bike MS ride at the end of June and honestly, I wasn’t sure until I crossed the finish line that I was going to be able to finish it without the help of the sag wagon. Not surprisingly, my mind was my biggest enemy as I cranked up hills in the heat. It was so easy to slip back into the mindset of “I don’t want to do this, it hurts.” But I kept pedaling and somehow, I made it.
In July, a friend suggested that I train with her for next weekend’s Denver Half Marathon. I agreed with many reservations. I had never run more than about 3 miles and I was worried about being able to stick to Hal Higdon‘s training schedule, which asked for at least three days of running a week plus cross-training. But I stuck with it and the energy and sound sleep I got from biking intensified as I started running.
I never thought I would run ten miles. Honestly, I never thought I could. But I did yesterday, and I am in the best shape of my life. I won’t be running fast on Sunday, but I plan to run every step of that race. I’m not writing this to brag about how far I’ve come (although I am proud of myself), but because I think it’s important to get the word out about the cheapest, easiest, most effective anti-depressants on the market: endorphins and serotonin.
So what are endorphins? WebMD has a pretty good description of how endorphins work, but I’ll also summarize here. Basically, when you exercise, endorphins are released into your blood stream. They reduce your perception of pain, have a mild sedative effect, and give you the temporary euphoria that some call “runner’s high.”
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts not only mood, but appetite, sexual desire, and sleep, among others. There is also a growing body of evidence that exercising can help improve the body’s use of serotonin, another body chemical that affects mood and depression. In fact, the most common type of antidepressant mimics this behavior: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).
Mayo Clinic has a great article on how to get started on an exercise program if you suffer from anxiety or depression. They also note that for many people, exercise is not a cure, and should not replace seeking medical care. However, recent studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as anti-depressant medications and psychotherapy, and that you can start to feel better with just 30 minutes of exercise 3-5 times a week, which is the amount already widely encouraged to combat obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other physical illnesses.
In just over nine months, I have lost a third of my body fat. I’ve lost 2.5 inches off of each thigh. I’ve dropped a pant size. My resting heart rate is now a full 20 beats per minute lower than it was in January. And I’m not depressed anymore, despite some crappy extenuating circumstances like another death in the family, losing my job, and the possibility that my husband will also lose his job in the next few months. I always told myself, as a busy working mom, that I didn’t have time to exercise. The truth is, now I know that I don’t have time NOT to exercise.
Life is too short to spend another minute feeling lousy. So get out there and go for a walk. Even if it’s cold. Even if you probably ought to sweep the kitchen floor or send a few more emails. If I can do it, you can do it.