It’s Blue Monday, believed to be ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Christmas is over, many people are regretting the extra chocolate they munched over the festive period, feeling bad about the diet they haven’t stuck to, and it’s still dark and cold, and a long time until the summer. Even with Oxford’s glorious sunsets, things can look pretty bleak.
Obviously there’s a huge difference between feeling a bit down because it’s January and suffering from clinical depression, which will affect sufferers at any time of year, not just because the Christmas break is over – that’s a distinction that is often lost when Blue Monday is discussed. However, there is an entire body of research showing how exercise can help to reduce the symptoms of depression, whether it’s a fleeting dip in mood or a more sustained medical condition. Nobody will claim it’s the silver bullet, but it’s difficult to argue with the fact that for many people, it can be a real help.
Depression is estimated to affect 2.6 in 100 people (1), which means that in Oxford there are nearly four thousand people suffering from the condition, as well as those who will suffer from low periods not classified as depression.
Often, depression is treated with anti-depressant drugs, or with talking therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or mindfulness. As well as reams of medical research looking at the benefits of these traditional therapies for depression, there is a lot of effort that has gone into looking at whether exercise can be a beneficial treatment. Even exercise alone is widely believed to be better than receiving no treatment (2).
But why does exercise have this effect? Well, there are several reasons:
1. It releases beneficial chemicals in your brain
It’s common knowledge that when you exercise, endorphins are released leading to a phenomenon known as ‘Runner’s High’. This is the same chemical that is released when you laugh. Endorphins also act as a sedative and a pain blocker, further emphasising their benefit.
2. It is associated with improved self-worth and body image
One of the great things about exercise, whether weight training or cardio, is how quickly you can see progress. If you’re new to exercise then running 5k may be a struggle, or you may find it difficult to lift weights with good form. After even a few weeks of consistent effort jogging 5k will be notably easier, and you will find that the weights you are using will have become heavier. This is immensely satisfying, and can help to improve feelings of self-worth but also body image, when the associated physical benefits of training start to kick in.
3. It can be sociable
When you’re feeling low, getting out of bed to go to the gym may be the last thing you feel like doing. But if you’ve signed up for a class or arranged to meet a friend, or even a personal trainer then the sense of accountability should increase, making it easier to take that all important first step out of the door.
4. You’re in control
By choosing to exercise you are choosing to make a positive step for your mental health. Having a sense of power over your recovery can banish those feelings of helplessness and being trapped that often creep in.
5. It’s sustainable
Once exercise becomes habitual, it stops being an effort to get to the gym or go for that run – in the most part anyway! Everybody will have bad days when they don’t feel like training, but ensuring that you take the next opportunity to go, or just soldiering through, will ensure that exercise becomes a sustainable part of your daily or weekly routine, so you consistently feel the benefits.
So what next? You may have been reading this blog post thinking, ‘great, exercise may help me feel better, but where do I start?’
There are so many options here and it’s crucial you find something you enjoy. If the thought of running on a treadmill for thirty minutes fills you with dread, then it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy it, or stick to it.
Why not see what exercise classes there are in your local gym, or see if there’s a local running club? If you’re intimidated by the more intense classes then give something like Zumba a go and ease yourself into it. Find a friend who could do with some extra accountability and agree to meet them at the gym at a certain time. If you want to take your exercise regime more seriously, why not look into semi-private or even 1-on-1 personal training to escalate your results, and increase that all-important incentive to turn up to your sessions?
There are a million and one different ways to exercise. Once you’ve taken that first step, it should get easier. Give several things a go, find one you like and set moderate and achievable goals. If for you that means exercising once per week then great – start there and build up. The key is taking a step in the right direction.