Depression. What a bitch. There’s a good chance you’ve flirted with, dated, or been in a long-term relationship with the abusive D-Money (10% of us experience at least one major depressive episode in our lifetime, and those statistics are conservative considering it’s highly under-reported). Even if you haven’t been so unfortunate as to experience it yourself, you probably know someone who has. And, if you still can’t recall anyone who’s battled it (unless you’re a bushman who only uses technology to access my blog) you may know of many people in the media who’ve struggled: Angelina Jolie, Stephane Richer, Russel Brandt–and some with more tragic outcomes, such as Rick Rypien. If you think you might be depressed, you can check out the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria here , or you can take a free anonymous mental health screening here.

Depression is not something that can be summed up in one post (this will likley be the first of many on the topic), and treatment varies from individual to individual. For some, medication is appropriate and necessary (and I have worked with many, many clients who have benefitted from it a great deal). However, powerful pharmaceutical companies, excellent marketing, and our pain-denying, quick-fix-seeking culture have created the perfect cocktail for  overmedication.  It is WAY too easy to walk into a GP’s office and come out with a label and a prescription. This is especially true with depression and anxiety disorders, which compile 2 of the top 3 presenting problems I see in my office every day. If you’re interested, here’s a fantastic documentary on the subject. Still, I want to reiterate that I’m neither for nor against medication; rather, I am against overprescription of medication. I believe that, unless one has clearly been struggling with major depression resulting from biochemical imbalances, there are other measures that should be attempted first–or at least in conjunction with medication.  This post will be the first of 4 lifestyle factors that have ample empirical evidence backing their success in treating individuals who are depressed, and how you can incorporate these lifestyle changes into your own busy routine.

1) Exercise

I can’t emphasize enough the effect exercise can have on depression. This is something I witnessed professionally as a personal trainer, but because I wouldn’t expect you to believe something just because I’ve witnessed it working (and if you do, please don’t watch infomercials…you’ll be homeless before you know it), I can assure you there is a TON of empirically-supported research to back this claim. There are several contributing factors: Firstly, exercise releases endorphins, which have a similar effect on the body as morphine (“general awesomeness” feeling). Endorphins increase serotonin (which makes us feel good emotionally), and act as an analgesic (painkiller). This is why sometimes you keep running or skating without noticing you’ve gotten injured along the way.

Secondly, exercise generally increases social support. There will be an upcoming post on the effects of social support and depression, but basically, being around others makes us feel happier. If we go for a walk/run with a friend, join a Rec team, or have a gym date, we’re not only satisfying our need for endorphins, we’re satisfying our need for connection.

Thirdly, exercise increases our sense of well-being and accomplishment. How good do you feel when you finish a tough workout? YAAAA! I’M THE STRONGEST M*THAF$CKA IN THE WOOOOORLD (OK, maybe not that good, but confidence usually increases at least a bit).

Fourthly, exercise generally has a positive effect on our bodies physically, so we generally feel better about our appearance, view ourselves more positively, and therefore feel have higher self-esteem (I say “generally” because there are of course exceptions to this rule, as in with overexercising and eating disorders, which I will discuss in later posts).

Finally, exercise can be FUN (Yeah right, Megan. Ask me how much “fun” I’m having when I’ve been on the stairclimber for 40 mins, the guy next to me clearly ate roadkill for dinner, and I feel like my calves are going to explode…). OK, so it’s not always “fun,” and that’s what keeps a lot of people from doing it. It can be fun if you’re on a team, doing it with a friend, have some good music or a podcast to listen to, have nice scenery to look at, etc. You decide what makes it more rewarding for you!

OK, so maybe you’re a little more convinced to incorporate exercise into your life, but that’s still not going to get you out of bed. One of the major presenting factors of depression is that it takes away our motivation, so the idea of the 1.5 hour gym visit we may have been able to do previously now seems pretty daunting.  One of the most common “mistakes” people make when trying to get out of a major depressive episode is set their goals/expectations at the same level they set them at when they were feeling well. This is not only extremely overwhleming, but it basically sets them up for failure and gives them an opportunity to beat themselves up for “being lazy” or “uncommitted.” If you are depressed, you are not functioning at 100%. So don’t set your goals as if it were that way.  Aim for a brisk 15 minute walk up a hill with a close friend (and that close friend might be Adele or Feist). I say hill because it is best to try to get your heart-rate up to get those endorphins going.  Whatever you do, DON’T say you’re going to go to the gym every day for an hour of cardio and full-body strength-training or join 5 teams, etc. It will have a NEGATIVE effect.  If you’re unceratin about whether or not you’re fit to exercise, see a doctor or fill out a PAR-Q (Physical activity readiness questionnaire) at a gym or online.  If you think being held accountable might make you more likely to get moving, join a Rec team in your area, take a martial arts or fitness class, or hire a personal trainer.

Who needs drugs when you have your own lab in your brain? Get sweaty!