Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why working out won't cure your depression

Ever since working out became fashionable in the 70s we have been hearing about how good exercise is for you, both physically and mentally. Especially nowadays, there is an endless flow of advertisements, gym memberships, motivational videos, before and after pictures all of which are trying to sell you one thing - the belief that physical activity is good for you. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not advocating a couch potato lifestyle, regular physical activity (especially if it's moderate) is really good for you. Human beings evolved to move, not to imitate a houseplant. However, I an saying that exercise is not the elixir of life it sometimes appears to be. 
For starters, a lot of people, including medical professionals will try to tell you just how good exercise is for people who have mood disorders. They will list a whole plethora of benefits, from your body releasing endorphins which give you a "runner's high", to better sleep and a feeling of camaraderie with your workout buddies (who will double as your support group). The way they present it, you could toss your happy pills right out the window. go for a jog, and the whole world will turn into fluffy unicorn barf. Why are we not all doing this? Well, because it doesn't really work that way...
What pop-psychology somehow always fails to mention is that the human body and mind are complex and intricate systems with many factors working in synergy, and quite often working differently in different people. Physical activity does help with moderate depression and anxiety, but it is not as simple as flipping a switch and turning off the bad mood. It also seems to help protect people from depression later in life, but again it is not the Holy Grail some portray it to be. There is mounting evidence that exercise can help people who suffer from mood disorders, but most of it is not clear-cut and the most successful trials have been done in a controlled environment where people received medication, counseling, support from their piers AND a tailored exercise regiment. For those of us who were not lucky enough to become pampered lab rats test subjects, this is what physical activity might bring you: 

As someone who has been physically active most of her life, I think I can speak for most active people when I say that exercising sucks a lot of the time. Specifically, if you are training for some kind of competition, like a marathon, and you plan on winning (as you should be in a competitive sport) most of your exercises are going to suck. You will be overworked, tired, you will have to watch what you eat (and I'm not just talking eating healthy, but a specific and very restrictive diet) and you will probably be nursing minor injuries all of the time. That does not spell mental health. In fact, it could mean just the opposite. Think of how many professional athletes crack at one point and just do something stupid and/or dangerous. If anyone gets enough exercise, it is them, yet they still crack under stress. 
On the other hand, if you are just trying to stay fit and do some exercise you enjoy, without the pressure of wining a gold medal or trophy, you might be in a better position to reap the benefits without so many costs of exercise. For starters, the stress is lower since you are not doing it to beat others nor in front of a bunch of cameras. However, you might still run into other human beings, unless you exercise home alone, some of which will not be kind and supportive. Sure your gym buddy is on your side, but what about those three ripped fart bags that constantly tease you for having love-handles or moobs? They are not there to help your emotional stability, but you can always switch gyms, so that's ok. Also, if you get injured (and you will) you can always stay home. That is, unless you have a job, kids, pet dog etc., in which case you will be limping on that sprained ankle to do your daily chores.  
Ok, I'm going to stop here because the post is getting long and there are a lot more +/- situations that you can imagine on your own. The point is, do take a yoga class or go jogging, just don't think of it as a magical cure-all. Nothing is.