precision-nutrition-defeat-depression-exercise

Can Exercise Really Defeat Depression?

How to find out if it can work for you.

By Camille DePutter

Some say exercise can defeat depression. Sure, it’s worth a try — in theory. But when you’re depressed, it can be hard to muster the motivation. Here are some gentle incentives and strategies for giving it a go.

Ever dealt with depression? Then you’ve probably been told to find a physical outlet for your feelings.

Maybe a well-meaning friend told you to “just get outside and go for a jog.”

Or a doctor “prescribed” fitness to counter your symptoms.

Perhaps you read the book about dancing as a depression cure, or well-trafficked Reddit threads about the mental benefits of everything from gentle gardening to brutal obstacle courses.

Just get out there, folks say. It’ll take your mind off your problems.

But if you’ve ever lived under the scratchy, smothering gray blanket of this illness, you know:

It’s not that easy.

Depression can make your body feel dull. Heavy. Wooden. Listless.

When you’re depressed, the mere idea of picking up one foot and dragging it in front of the other can seem laughable. (If you can dig up a chuckle, that is.)

I know, because I’ve been there.

One day, while in the throes of a good old-fashioned dark-rain-cloud depression, I woke up and felt stuck. I’d been glued to my flat emotional landscape like a little moth on flypaper.

I knew I needed to do something different.

Without thinking, I got down on the floor. Started doing push-ups. Grabbed a couple of dusty old dumbbells. Did a few lifts. A few rows. A few squats.

At first, it was just a gaspy, desperate rush to experience something — anything— other than what I’d been feeling.

But once I was done, I wanted more.

I needed an emotional outlet. Moving my body felt good. (And to be honest, I wanted to hit things.) So I decided to take a boxing class. Ordinarily I might have talked myself out of it. But at that point, I felt I had nothing to lose.

Lucky for me, it was love at first punch.

Looking back, I wonder about the role exercise played in healing my depression.

Was it powerful medicine? Or just a placebo? Could movement have kept my depression away in the first place?

And if exercise does help with depression… how the heck do you find the energy for it when, you know, you’re depressed.

precision nutrition defeat depression exercise Can exercise really defeat depression? How to find out if it can work for you.

Lifestyle and mental health go hand-in-hand

Much like nutrition’s role in mental health, decades of research show a link between exercise — resistance training, aerobics, yoga… everything — and better mood.

And the relationship is solid: A 2014 meta-analysis of 24 studies, including hundreds of thousands of patients, confirmed: The more we sit, the sadder we are.

For example, one classic study from Columbia University found that sedentary people are depressed twice as often as active people.

But does an inactive lifestyle cause depression, or vice versa?

A recent study looking at adults over the course of three decades concluded that the relationship is bidirectional. In other words, maybe sitting around makes you depressed, and maybe that reduces your urge to move. And round and round we go.

OK, so moving your body might help you avoid becoming depressed in the first place. But could it also stop depression in its tracks?

Maybe.

For some people, exercise is as good as antidepressant medications. Or even better. And it seems that in general, the more people exercise, the better they feel.

How exercise makes us happier

Physical activity could improve your state of mind by:

  • curbing stress chemicals: A 2014 study demonstrated that PGC-1alpha — an enzyme produced in muscles during exercise — has the ability to break down kynurenine, a substance that accumulates in the bloodstream after stress and has been linked to depression.
  • supporting neurotransmitters: Exercise may boost the production of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and some cognitive function, and that may be low in depressed people. Physical activity may also stimulate neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons. That could improve cognition, and, in turn, your mental health.
  • boosting endorphins: Exercise can give you a short-term burst of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that block pain and produce a natural “high.”
  • reducing inflammation: Many types of exercise can lower inflammation, a potential cause of depression.
  • decreasing stress: There’s a reason that some athletes refer to their time at the gym as “therapy.” Exercise can be a great antidote to stress, which research has linked to depression, perhaps owing to the body’s inflammatory stress response.
  • encouraging happier thoughts and feelings: In 2009, one study explored depressed women’s use of long-distance running as a coping mechanism. Exercise can distract us from negative thoughts and feelings, while making us feel joyful and purposeful. It can also provide a sense of identity, which depression often steals from us.

I can imagine a lot of reasons why boxing helped me feel better

Boxing gave me an outlet — a way to express pent-up emotions, and a break from being “in my head.”

When I felt helpless, boxing empowered me. When I felt alone, boxing gave me a coach and a community.

When I felt frustrated, angry, or simply like beating the crap out of a heavy bag, well… boxing is just what the depression doctor ordered.

I left each class high on endorphins and a sense of satisfied accomplishment.

What to do next

I know it’s not easy to do stuff when you’re depressed. Just getting out of bed is a victory some days.

But here are some things you can try, if you’re ready.

If you can do any of these, even just a little bit, congratulate yourself. Each one is an accomplishment.

#1: Take it step by step

You almost can’t start too small. If a 30 minute jog feels impossible, try a walk around the block. If that feels too far, shrink the distance even further to whatever feels manageable. Walk from the couch to the bathroom a few times.

I got a lot out of an illustration called “The Truth About Motivation” from the workbook Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders.

precision nutrition truth about motivation Can exercise really defeat depression? How to find out if it can work for you.

#2: Try something that used to bring you joy

Depression can bleach the colors out of your rainbow and strip the fun from things you used to love.

Give it a go anyway. Do whatever you love (or used to love), whether it’s taking the dog for a walk or playing touch football with friends.

You might not feel the magic. That’s OK. Just try whatever you can manage.

Because the opposite — living completely without your favorite activities — sucks worse.

#3: Try something new

As Janis Joplin famously sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

Depression can disintegrate you. But then, you don’t have any more rules to play by.

Sometimes, the benefit of feeling lost is that you can wander into new territory. I walked into a boxing gym when I felt so low I was willing to try anything.

If you can open yourself up to new experiences, you may find pleasure in things you never even considered before.

#4: Get support

Whether it’s therapists, doctors, family or friends, ask for help from the people around you. Tell them you want to try exercise.

They may be able to help you, inspire you, or even join you. If you can, seek out a community-focused gym or athletic group, an online support system, and/or a personal trainer. Assemble the “team” that works best for you.

#5: Get outside

Nature is powerful. Sunshine, fresh air, green space… even the friendly bacteria in soil may make you feel better.

Soak up as much nature as you can. If you live in the city, go to a park or spend time in a local garden. If leaving the house feels too daunting, start by opening a window and bringing some plants into your home. Try to work your way up to spending time outside.

#6: Mix it up

One you’re on a bit of a roll, consider mixing aerobic exercise (such as walking, cycling, running, or swimming), with anaerobic sets. While most studies on depression focus on aerobic activity, there’s a place for strength-based work, too — such as high intensity interval training (HIIT) — which can get those endorphins kicking.

#7: Be consistent

Whatever you can move, move it. The more you move, the better it works.

You might feel better right away after a single exercise session. Or it might take a little while. Either way, keep moving as often as you can, in any way you can.

Meanwhile, observe your symptoms. Consider logging your feelings in a journal, so you can look for benefits. If you’re not getting any better after a test period, consult your doctor.

#8: Be gentle and patient

Don’t beat yourself up if you skip a workout. This isn’t about achieving perfection or becoming a superstar athlete. It’s about doing something good for yourself.

On the flip side, don’t overdo it. Intense training can boost your endorphins, but it can also raise your cortisol, a stress hormone, tax the central nervous system, and cause inflammation — none of which will help depression.

How do you put this all together? Think about designing your own personal prescription.

Therapy, medication, nutrition, social support, and any other creative methods of your choosing may all work together to help you get better, over time. Pick what works best for you.

Everyone experiences depression differently. You might find that exercise doesn’t do much.

But it might just become the best depression-fighter you’ll ever find.

overtrained

All About Recovery

What is recovery and why is it so important?

How much time do you spend in the gym (or working to physically improve your body)?

Probably not much. Well, at least compared with the amount of time you spend between those sessions.

Gym time is simply a stimulus for change. This stimulus will only create results if we recover enough between workouts. The quicker and more efficiently we can recover, the sooner we can spur further progress.

When someone doesn’t recover adequately, performance and health may suffer. Many athletes describe it as “hitting a wall.” Many exercisers refer to it as “overtraining.” It usually means low energy and an overall sensation of not feeling quite right. Fatigue occurs because recovery wasn’t adequate.

If we looked at someone’s insides, we might also see that their markers of inflammation are elevated. We might see that their connective tissues aren’t healing. We might see their happy neurotransmitters and anabolic hormones going down and their catabolic hormones such as cortisol going up.

In short, lack of recovery is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon with wide-ranging effects.

The underlying causes of fatigue fall into two main categories:

  1. Central (neuromuscular)
  2. Local (peripheral)

Our central nervous system (CNS) acts like a car engine regulator. If the engine on a car revs too high for too long, it shuts down. Our brain attempts to protect our muscles the same way. It will reduce the rate of nerve impulses.

Conversely, local fatigue is related to energy system depletion and/or metabolic byproduct accumulation. Using our car analogy, this is sort of like running out of gas or rusting.

overtrained All About Recovery

What you should know about recovery

We can do lots of activities between workouts. The ones we ultimately choose greatly influence how efficiently we recoup. We can place all of our “out of gym” activities into two main categories:

  • Sympathetic activities – often referred to as “fight or flight”
  • Parasympathetic activities – often referred to as “rest and digest”

sympathetic parasympathetic All About Recovery

Pursuing ambitious career goals, building relationships, balancing finances, acquiring food, acquiring shelter, and all of the daily activities required for human survival are sympathetic activities.

They are stressors and can bump up levels of cortisol and adrenaline.

When we get wrapped up in these activities and let them dominate our life, it can result in:

  • Poor blood sugar management and insulin resistance
  • Depression, sleep disruption, and carbohydrate craving
  • Decreased thyroid hormone output and a reduced metabolism
  • Altered sex hormone activity
  • Amino acid loss from muscle

If this is chronic, production of stress hormones can slow and the development of ongoing fatigue could occur. This type of fatigue is central, or neuromuscular. The body has been revving too high for too long and it’s shutting down.

Now, removing all stressors from life might sound appealing, but it isn’t a positive thing. Rather than eliminating stress, balancing stressful activities with relaxing and energizing activities is the key.

Relaxing and energizing activities are parasympathetic dominant. These include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai chi
  • Spa treatments
  • Meaningful relationships/discussions
  • Jacuzzi time
  • Sauna
  • Relaxing hobbies
  • Reading
  • Music
  • Drinking tea
  • Daydreaming
  • Warm baths
  • Candles
  • Aromatherapy

Meditation, yoga, pilates and tai chi can help to lower stress, improve oxygenation and stimulate recovery. They’ve been around for thousands of years because they work. Spa treatments, sauna time and baths can facilitate lymph circulation and recovery.

Sleep and meaningful relationships can also regulate our recovery. A restful sleep and a good laugh are like a carnival for energizing and recovery hormones. And everyone likes the carnival.

Most people need 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep each night to perform their best. See All About Sleep for more. If your sleep has tanked, you may be overtraining.

One activity isn’t necessarily better than another; it’s more about what the specific activity does for you. Remember, the immune system is working overtime between exercise bouts as it tries to bring things back into balance. The least you can do is nudge it along.

Prioritizing 30 minutes of parasympathetic activity each day is essential for productive recovery.

relaxing All About Recovery

Nutrition

Real food

On the nutrition front, eating real food in its unprocessed form will give your body the nutrients it needs. We cover this in depth throughout Precision Nutrition v4. Consuming whole foods along with herbs and spices can help to moderate inflammation, assisting in recovery.

Caloric intake

Avoid lowering calories below 1500 per day when training more than 7 hours each week.

Appetite

Appetite can clue you in on your recovery status as well. If you can’t imagine eating more than a couple pieces of fruit each day OR feel like a bottomless food pit, you may be overtraining.

Water

And don’t neglect hydration. Plenty of fluids can be important for lymphatic function.

Supplementation

Supplements after training can enhance the recovery process. These include carbohydrates, protein and BCAAs. See AA Carbohydrates, AA Protein, and AA BCAAs for more. If recovery supplements or a nutrient dense meal aren’t in place after workouts, the regeneration process can be delayed. Glutamine and creatine might also be of use for recovery. See AA Glutamine and  AA Creatinefor more.

Phosphatidylserine is one of the few supplements that might help to control stress levels, see this article for more.

Avoid unnecessary anti-inflammatory medications, prescription or over the counter (e.g., NSAIDs). While we don’t want chronic inflammation, we do want inflammation to happen in the initial stages after trauma. When we suppress inflammation, we may also forfeit the recovery process long-term.

Workouts

Variation and cross-training

If we don’t cross train and vary workouts, specific muscles and energy systems may not fully recover. Think of a hard core marathoner or muscle head, always doing the same program until they burn out or get injured (or both).

If you do intense intervals and then intense resistance training, day after day, you can tax your anaerobic system. This is one of the reasons lower intensity cardio is so popular between resistance training sessions for strength and physique athletes.

If you do endurance cycling and running day after day, you’ll tax your oxidative system, moreover, nutrient stores will likely go un-replenished.

Those are both examples of local fatigue, with depleted energy systems and metabolic waste product accumulation.

Starting the recovery process

After each stressful workout, we must repair damaged tissues and cells while replenishing nutrient stores and removing wastes.

Engaging in an adequate warm-up, mobility work, a cool-down, and plenty of flexibility work will assist in the recovery process. Think of it as pre-hab.

Improving and ensuring good circulation is an important part of this. Blood brings new oxygen and nutrients while removing wastes. Lymphatic circulation sends white blood cells to do their job while tidying messes left behind.

Exercise and immunity

The relationship between exercise and immunity is what researchers call a “J-shaped curve”.

  • Sedentary people have a moderate risk of infection. Their immune system isn’t running as well as it could be.
  • People who are regularly active, but moderate their intensity and vary their training, do better than the sedentary people. They’re the healthiest bunch.
  • People who are active but constantly pushing their limits — whether that’s workout frequency, duration, intensity, or loading — without proper recovery start to become sicker and sicker the more they crank up the difficulty. In extreme cases, they can end up with a serious infection such as pneumonia.

nieman 19952 All About Recovery

Overtraining/Under-recovering

People often talk about “overtraining”, but in reality what they mean is “under-recovering”.

You may be overtraining if:

  • Your muscles are always sore
  • The idea of going to the gym makes you feel depressed or anxious
  • In fact you feel more depressed and anxious overall, with a side order of crabby
  • You aren’t sleeping well — or can’t stop sleeping
  • You have no appetite or a ravenous appetite
  • Everything hurts, all the time
  • You seem to come down with every darn virus going around
  • Your gym performance has been slumping — either seriously stagnating or getting worse

One objective indicator of overtraining/under-recovering is elevated morning heart rate. If you’re concerned, take your pulse before you get out of bed one morning. Here’s one handy test.

You can also do a couple of other home tests to pinpoint adrenal fatigue, which often also signals overtraining/under-recovering. More on adrenal function and testing

Summary and recommendations

  • Prioritize 30 minutes of parasympathetic activity each day (e.g., yoga, meditation, massage, warm bath, Jacuzzi, light conversation, laughing, etc.)
  • Don’t lower calorie intake below 1500 when training more than 7 hours a week
  • Use a carbohydrate, protein, or BCAA supplement after training
  • Consider using creatine, glutamine, and/or phosphatidylserine
  • Avoid using anti-inflammatory medications on a regular basis
  • Eat nutrient dense foods at regular intervals, incorporate herbs and spices, and drink water and tea whenever you are thirsty
  • Vary your training program and cross-train
  • Participate in low intensity exercise between higher intensity bouts to promote recovery (e.g., yoga, walking, swimming, stretching, mobility work, etc.)
  • Aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night

by Ryan Andrews