Help me help my body help me
November 18, 2010 10:23 AM   Subscribe

What's the best exercise for depression and/or anxiety, and how do I stick with it?

The situation: I'm mildly depressed pretty much year-round, but it gets really rough in the winter as the sun goes away. I'm kind of hanging on with my fingernails right now, not in a deep depression but staring it down, and I'd really like to start treating it before it's too late. I have a lot of anxiety about taking psychotropic medications, so that's unfortunately out, and I'm currently looking for a therapist but not seeing anyone. Hence the search for exercise, which I know is often recomended for this type of situation. What would you say is the most effective exercise to help with depression, and how can someone who can barely get out of bed in the morning persist in doing it?

The fitness details: I'm in my 20s, female, pretty unhealthy right now (probably 80 pounds over my ideal weight). I have a gym membership and maybe $100-$150 I'm able to devote to extra-gym activity costs, and I work a standard 9-5 so I have evening hours free for exercise. I'm not currently exercising except for gentle beginner's yoga twice a week. I don't have the space in my apartment to do an at-home cardio program, but I could probably find time for some quiet activity during the hours most people are asleep. I am not, sadly, a morning person. I live in the Pacific Northwest and the rain is kind of neverending here right now. I'm pretty intimidated at this point by competitive or team-based activities because they're unfamiliar and full of potential to fail and, well, I'm depressed and that freaks me out.

Throwaway e-mail; I wrote a novel of special snowflake details but it was a little overwhelming.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I work 8-5, so I roll out of bed at 5:30 AM, and while I cannot even think, I go to the Y and swim. I have to get everything ready the night before, including sweats, coffee and my travel mug. I am running on autopilot at that time. I go three mornings a week.

I am not normally depressed, but I have had a really sad year and this helps me a lot. (I have been doing this for years) Any exercise that gets your heart working will help. And these days when I swim are the happiest days of all.
posted by chocolatetiara at 10:32 AM on November 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The best exercise is the one you enjoy the most, because that's the one you do. That said, you need aerobic exercise to affect mood (because the endorphins blah blah blah).

posted by Sidhedevil at 10:34 AM on November 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

Even just walking is good for depression; after work, can you go to the gym and treadmill for 30-60 mins? You can watch TV while you do it, or listen to music, and use it as a time to wind down from the workday.
posted by The otter lady at 10:41 AM on November 18, 2010

I was in pretty much your position a couple years ago. I had what was, in retrospect, a lucky break: the pipes froze in my basement 2 weeks after I joined the gym and the plumbing didn't get completely repaired for several months, so my house had no hot water for a long time. This meant that if I wanted to take a hot shower, I had to go to the gym to do it. I'm not a morning person either, but if I have to pick between being smelly at work vs. getting up a couple hours earlier, I'll get up early. Fast-forward to the present day: I'm about 60 pounds lighter than I was, I run 20-some miles a week, I have a bunch of new friends from running and triathlon, and I'm not cripplingly depressed from November to April.

While I don't suggest breaking your plumbing, I would try "sabotaging" my everyday routine for a month or two, to make it harder to NOT go to the gym than to go there: Keep something that you need locked in a locker at the gym. This is easier if you work out in the morning (you can keep your shower stuff and makeup locked up at the gym), but it still could be do-able in the evening (leave various items in your locker, such as your grocery list or the book that you want to read, so that you need to go to the gym to be able to finish the rest of your evening routine). If you can make it so that you HAVE to go to the gym, you're way more likely to actually go to the gym, which makes it easier for going to the gym to become your new routine as opposed to an optional virtuous activity. And also plan ahead so that all your gym stuff is ready. If you get up at 6 and there is a pre-packed gym bag on your bedroom floor, a pot of coffee already brewed, and a locker full of shower stuff at the gym, going to the gym is a much more palatable option -- in fact, it is the single easiest course for you to take.

Signing up for an exercise class makes it easier as well: if you have Zumba written into your schedule two or three days a week, it's more of a commitment than saying "Oh, I might go to the gym later," so you're less likely to bail.

Also, find exercises that you actually like to do. Aerobic activity is purportedly good for depression. I like running -- not everyone does. But pick something like running or swimming or biking or "cardio kickboxing" -- anything that you'll do for at least 20 minutes, that you don't hate, and that gets your heart rate up a bit.
posted by kataclysm at 10:44 AM on November 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yoga and pilates really helped me when I was dealing with depression. There's something very healing about the stretching and pulling and centering that each pose necessitates. I also found that fixing my nutrition assisted in making my depression abate. I was seriously depressed -- suicidal, anorexic, etc. But by focusing on eating fruits and vegetables and doing my daily routine of 15 minutes of yoga, 30 of pilates, I was able to speed up the healing process when I also started going to therapy. Good luck! Feel free to message me if you want to pick my brain a bit.
posted by patronuscharms at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2010

The problem with this question is that everyone's a little different, so your ideal exercise is not my ideal exercise. That being said, if it's a healthy natural endorphin rush you're after, cardio is a good way to get high.

For me, yoga was worse than useless because the need for meticulous perfection in something that was actively painful set of my anxieties and group activities caused as much stress and they fixed.

Futzing about in a swimming pool during the slow time and a treadmill and some comfy shoes are my favourites. In the former case it tires you out very quietly and provides a completely novel medium (buoyancy is so good for anxiety, and if you're at all water nervous, public swimming pools are set up to help with baby steps) and in the latter case, running/walking briskly lets your mind wander so you're not too bored, with numbers you can choose to ignore or pay attention to on the treadmill read out if you're competitive.

Some exercise anxiety can be mitigated by making it comfort based not performance based. For example coming out of the pool freezing cold after your body has exhausted itself can be made into one of the nicest feelings ever with a cup of hot tea and a small snack/soup. similarly soothing tired muscles after tread-milling is pure bliss.
posted by Phalene at 10:47 AM on November 18, 2010

I really, really enjoy my morning swim. It's relaxing, pleasant, it doesn't hurt, but it does get my heart rate up and the blood pumping. I find that plus some fish oil does wonders for me in the winter. I'm on an antidepressant now but I still find I feel somewhat depressed in the winter unless I exercise and take fish oil.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agree completely with sidhedevil- I climb- there are 3 climbing gyms around where I live and I go 3 or 4 times a week. In the summers I climb outdoors. It's exercise without being "exercise."
posted by TheBones at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2010

Aerobic exercise is probably best but I found that lifting weights really helps my depression as well. Using Starting Strength really helped me especially in the "See results every time you go" department which was nice because when I wasn't feeling like I was accomplishing anything in my life I could look back at my journal and see concrete proof that that wasn't true. Perhaps a combination?
posted by josher71 at 11:04 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I stick to spinning on a bike in the mornings because I find that exercising at night affects my sleep and working out in the mornings gives me the energy I need to actually go in to work. I prefer the bike because I can bring a book to read so I don't feel like it's such a chore. After I get off the bike, I spend 15 min or so doing some Yoga stretches and try to clear my mind before I start the day. YMMV.

But the thing that keeps me going to the gym everyday is that I make a promise to myself that I don't have to go fast, or hard as long as I stay on that bike for 30 min. It really helps on the days when being able to get out of bed was a significant victory.

I don't think it matters what kind of exercise you do so long as it gets your heart pumping and you stick to it everyday to make it a habit.
posted by cosmic_shoals at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah sidhevil is correct. Try a bunch of different things and do the ones you actually, truly think are fun. The best is to just get your heartrate up, get the blood flowing, but don't exhaust yourself. Break a nice sweat for a half hour every day or two, and within a couple of weeks you'll be golden. If you feel like crap when you're finished, you went too hard. Back off a little bit the next time.
posted by facetious at 11:17 AM on November 18, 2010

I sympathize. Exercise helps a lot, but I also find myself struggling to stay motivated and consistent. What really helped me keep with it was to invest in a few sessions with a personal trainer. Before doing that I'd go to the gym and not really know what to do, which made me feel pretty blah about it. I did three sessions with a trainer I'd seen around the gym, and who I got a good vibe from. She gave me three separate one-hour workouts so I can mix it up. Knowing what to actually do in the gym gave me a real boost, and getting stronger and seeing results pretty quickly is very encouraging. Also, with cardio, a peppy feel-good playlist keeps me going.
posted by dmvs at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2010

Sidhedevil is going to get a swelled head. thought I'da phrased it marginally differently: The best exercise is the one you do.

If your depression's response is like mine you'll see some value from damned near anything resembling activity. Sitting on the exercise bike to where I might have a slightly elevated heart rate is enough to equalize my mood.

I found a big help for me was to keep mini "go-bags" of what I needed for the gym - shorts, shirt, socks, change of underwear, gym towel - in a single old plastic grocery bag. I could know that if I picked one up off the pile I needed my sneakers and was good to go. Seems stupid that 60 seconds of looking in a dresser was more of an impediment than a 30 minute workout but the human mind - mine anyway - is a weird thing.

Carve out some time to go to the gym and try the various aerobic machines on simple settings to see what you like. Don't set an unrealistic energy level goal to start with - the most important thing is building the habit. You can tweak what you do when you're there as you go. It'll be easier to motivate yourself to go to the next level than to try to go from 0 to 60 right out the door.
posted by phearlez at 11:40 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

You already have a gym membership - can you add some personal training at the gym and stay within your fiscal goals? I ask this because the things that I've found Most helpful for endorphins aren't just cardio. I get a much better high, and feel so much more powerful, doing things like bootcamp classes.

A trainer can show you great personalized workouts that are like bootcamp in that they alternate intense cardio with strength training. A trainer will also give you an appointment that you won't want to miss, no matter how bleh you're feeling. Extra bonus: f your gym has free bootcamp classes you may find that after working with a trainer for awhile you'll be up for the classes and can cut back on the trainer. I'm ~50 pounds overweight, and at the low end of the fitness scale for our bootcamp and other intense classes, but have come to love them.

PS - Keep up the yoga, too, you'll need it to stretch and relax between workouts!
posted by ldthomps at 11:46 AM on November 18, 2010

two words: jogging buddy. jogging gets you outside and gets your heartrate up, both good for mental health. the buddy forces you not to skip, motivates you, and has the extra added benefit of conversation and companionship. it's a win-win-win for everyone.
posted by yarly at 11:58 AM on November 18, 2010

I've had mood swings for a very long long time. Exercise was my only remedy for it (Cardio exercises are best btw.) It went like that for years, then I learned about bipolar disorder. Long story short... I decided to get professional help, but after couple of sessions my psychiater and psychologist weren't able to make a conclusive diagnosis so they didn't give me any medication. I was still suffering, but then I discovered Omega 3. After only 2 weeks taking it, I felt a lot of improvements in concentration and somehow the overwhelming negative thoughts that come with depression became more controllable. I am much better now, my mood chart is flat :-). I recommend you adding fish to your diet and taking fish oil supplement.

You can find more information about fish oil here.

There is no standard dosage, but you can start with taking 3-4 grams omega 3 (not the capsule/fish oil weight, but the omega 3 / DHA+EPA content) per day. There is no need to buy an expensive brand, get the cheapest one. According to this page, Costco has the cheapest one (Best bang for your buck).

If you decide to try fish oil, take it at least for 6 weeks. And let me know later if it helps or not.
posted by bbxx at 11:59 AM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been taking walks during my lunch break. Nothing strenuous, just 20-30 minutes in the sun. It's helping so far. I hope I can keep it up once the snow hits.
posted by valadil at 12:01 PM on November 18, 2010

oh wait, I have three more words: cute workout clothes. call me shallow, but having a cute yoga top, new shoes, hi-tech socks, or the perfect stretchy-but-not-too-tight gym pants all motivate me a lot.
posted by yarly at 12:04 PM on November 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I recommend real biking with the wind in your hair, something with hills. I think real, fun, physical sensations along with exercise help get you out of your head and into your body, and hills will give you the "weeeee!" feeling going down, and endorphins powering up. Good luck to you, friend!
posted by shortyJBot at 12:33 PM on November 18, 2010

The best exercise is the one you will most consistently do. Whichever that is. My drug of choice was spin class, but ymmv.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:42 PM on November 18, 2010

Here's another vote for cycling. If you live anywhere near to your workplace (say, under 5, maybe 7, miles), try riding to work, at least a couple times a week. You can get a decent bike on Craigslist for not a lot of money. In the beginning keep it all as simple as possible (i.e., cheapo vinyl rain suit), and slowly reward yourself by getting better gear as you ride. You save gas/transit money and will start to pedal off the pounds. If you think you might be interested, check out the Clydesdales & Athenas subforum over at You won't find a more supportive group.
posted by Doohickie at 12:43 PM on November 18, 2010

I like kettle bell and medicine ball workouts because you have heavy things to lift, swing, slam, etc which gets me going AND gets out my frustrations. This is why I go to workout after work and that really, really works for me. But that Mefite* is right - keep trying stuff until you are having fun. I used to hate exercise until I found my (crossfit) gym.

*that devil girl that everyone keeps favoriting near the top of the page! :)
posted by pointystick at 12:55 PM on November 18, 2010

hot yoga helped the cloud of depression lift. You don't have to do yoga perfectly as someone above mentioned - it is your own practice and perfect as your own. With the heat you sweat unbelievably, your limbs loosen and its easier to flow into poses. I'd find a studio that offers hot yoga (baptiste or bikram) and try to do three classes a week. Its really hard at first, they're an hour and a half, ease into it, bring water and a towel for your mat. Be patient and set your intention to feel better.

other forms of exercise to try - try Zumba class at the gym or Body pump class if your gym has something like that - group exercise is more fun. and i second the cute workout clothes if you like that sort of thing (it works for me).
posted by dmbfan93 at 1:04 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, any cardio has a huge impact. Basically just getting heartrate/breathing up. Right now I'm splitting my time between the treadmill and elliptical machine.

As for keeping it up --- well, if you can find something you particularly enjoy that makes it easier, of course. But initially it may take a certain amount of forcing especially since depression tends to make you not want to do things.

However, it can have a reasonably quick effect and then it gets MUCH easier. My brain now associates exercise with lifting anxiety/depression and I feel so much better afterwards. The other "hump" you have to get over is when you start out very out of shape (like I did) it will be a little difficult/painful at first, but again this gets better in weeks/months if you do it regularly.

I've done lots of things for anxiety/depression -- medication, therapy, etc. And I think all are useful. But exercise is probably the single best thing I've done.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:13 PM on November 18, 2010

i'm a huge fan of walking. i know other folks have already mentioned it as an option, and i need to second (third or fourth?!) it. walking has always been there for me when i need to move my body but know i can't do more (such as go to the gym, jog, "heart pumping exercise").

what i found really helpful for me, especially in terms of my emotions (i was not in the best of relationships for me and took really long walks to have space for myself and get away from home), was to not focus on the walking, but instead on what was around me. i was in a not so warm, often foggy place (sf), similar to the pne. i did this by always taking a camera with me. finding things to photograph/document - street graffiti, random flowers, cats in store windows, interesting store window displays, etc. as i did this, i found myself walking for a few hours on the weekends, and each night after work (to and from work, actually - not sure if this is possible for you), and getting lost in the fact that i could find a lot of hidden beauty in my city, even though i was not seeing it expressed so much at home.

another factor that really helped me was music. i always walked around with my ipod on. and it was amazing what a good song could do to keep me motivated and moving.

this eventually transitioned me into biking more frequently, too.

things a really different now, and i'm in a different place in my life, but taking walks still hold a huge value for me and are not integrated into who i am and how i move through the world.

(biking does that for me too, but i get that you might be too cold in winter. layers for walking are good - you heat up pretty quickly).
posted by anya32 at 1:26 PM on November 18, 2010

eeek. taking walks still holds a huge value for me and walks ARE integrated into who i am and how i move through the world.

(sorry, my eyes are tired!).
posted by anya32 at 1:28 PM on November 18, 2010

The best exercise is the one you enjoy the most, because that's the one you do.


There is no best exercise (program). If lifting five pound weights while sitting on Swiss ball is what really gets you going than do that. Just remember you should include some kind of progressive model to one of the variables (weights, reps, sets, speed, tempo, etc.) so that you can see benefits and you don't end up quitting out of frustration or pointlessness.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:41 PM on November 18, 2010

I favorited Sidhedevil's comment, too. I like walking (outside, particularly, in quiet neighborhoods) when I'm having trouble with my anxiety or depression, because it's rhythmic and meditative even at a brisk pace, and I can reinforce that by listening to music.

I really love to dance, and it's fantastic for my mood, but I can't imagine how I would actually get started if I was in the dark place. My will to move gets super-low when I'm depressed/anxious. Walking is easier for me because the energy of activation is so low. Similarly, swimming is bad for me when I'm having trouble with depression because there's the swimsuit and the shower and the cold locker room and the cold water and although I would probably feel great once I was actually doing it and afterwards, I'm just never going to get there because I will always be so much more comfortable where I am. Whereas with walking I just have to talk myself into putting on shoes, grabbing my portable music device, keys and handkerchief, and going out the door.

Another tack, because you have a little money you can spend, is to see what the personal trainer options at your gym are. Not because you actually want the training as such, but because it can be motivating enough to have an appointment with someone. Jedi mind tricks.

I am not a morning person, but I usually exercise in the morning because that way it's over with before I have anything else to do and before I can think clearly enough to talk myself out of it.
posted by gingerest at 3:29 PM on November 18, 2010

Walking was immensely helpful for me when my depression was at its worst. I think the experience of moving through your environment under your own power with your head held up is very, very good for anybody dealing with depression.

If it's raining, get some nice wool clothes (so you'll still be warm even if you get wet), a decent coat, and a good wide-brimmed hat. I was surprised to find how much I enjoy walking in the rain.

Also, I highly recommend the books by American Zen teacher Cheri Huber, in particular The Depression Book and (Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe) There is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate. I bring her up rather a lot when the subject of depression comes up because her work has been literally life-saving for me. (A couple of years ago I was suicidally depressed. Today, I'm generally content edging into happy much of the time. It's all due to what I've learned from the awareness practice techniques Cheri teaches.)
posted by Lexica at 4:10 PM on November 18, 2010

Yet another vote for something you enjoy! Maybe poke around your gym and give everything you can a try out - you never know what you'll suddenly fall in love in, you know?

Personally, weightlifting when I'm feeling down/had a long day is really cathartic. If you're interested in giving lifting a try, Starting Strength linked up there is awesome - though if you're really new to it, maybe spend some of your spare money on a few sessions with a trainer to make sure you get the form right. Getting the form right in the beginning will only make things so much better the more and more weight you add on.
posted by zennish at 4:28 PM on November 18, 2010

Roller skating is mad fun, wicked cheap, it can be as social or solitary as you would like, and there are tons of non-competitive and competitive options in the Pacific Northwest. If you live in or near Seattle I would be happy to take you skating or talk to you about the clubs and open skate options.
posted by palegirl at 5:11 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I joined a powerlifting club and started heavy weights training. It helped because, (a) I suddenly had a coach who expected me to turn up, (b) I was training with people, so I felt safe and supported*, and (c) I had the concrete goal of a competition. I didn't expect to enjoy powerlifting as much as I did, and I didn't expect it to help my mood as much as it did, but those external factors made it really easy to throw on some trackpants and show up. Plus it can be really fun! Just make sure you have a great coach or trainer to show you how to lift safely.

I think serious strength training is very much underrated as a relaxing/empowering activity. Everyone, particularly women, always thinks of yoga first, but yoga always made me feel *more* depressed and anxious. Heavy weights also helped resolve some pretty serious joint issues I had. Couldn't recommend it highly enough.

*well, as safe and supported as a 5" woman in a gym full of refrigerator-sized men can feel, but I digress.
posted by nerdfish at 2:14 AM on November 19, 2010

Nthing walking as a great, easy form of mood-lifting exercise. I love to run, but I find that with stretching, putting on special clothes, and warming up/cooling down it's often too much of a hassle to even get started. Ditto for other forms of "exercise for exercise's sake". I'll usually walk to and from appointments throughout the day and then walk home from work (averaging out to ≈3 miles per day). When I do this, I feel noticeably better.

The Urban Ranger philosophy (which basically says that if you can walk somewhere in under an hour, then do so) does a particularly good job of illustrating the virtues of purposeful walking sprinkled throughout your day.
posted by HeKilledKennedy at 6:39 AM on November 19, 2010

If I were you I would check out what classes your gym has and write them into your calendar, as someone suggested.

Not only will it seem like an appointment, so you "have" to go, but it may be more helpful for someone who is depressed to not have the extended internally focused time that a long walk, bike, or run might have (when you are trying to follow step choreography or kick and punch a bag or imaginary target, it's hard to think about anything else!).
posted by Pax at 7:00 AM on November 19, 2010

In addition to exercise, socializing is often recommended as a good way to stave off depression. Can you arrange to exercise with a friend? Is there any kind of exercise-partner forum (through your gym, maybe) that you can check out to find a buddy? It'll help keep you accountable so that you stick with the exercising, and the socializing will be beneficial as well. Along those lines, also--dancing is a great combination of social space and exercise.
posted by aka burlap at 9:57 AM on November 19, 2010

When I started trying this exercise thing, my "rule" was to do half an hour of something everyday. Didn't matter what it was, didn't matter how slack-arse or half hearted it was, so long as it was half an hour. Try anything once. If you don't like it, you don't have to do it again. Start slow.

Things that have worked for me (ie, I have done multiple times:)) Cycling (Started with spin classes, now have a shiny red bicycle that I love), Running (Couch 2 5K), Walking (of course! A friend and I used to walk at a shopping centre if the rain is that bad), BodyPump, Swing Dancing, Swimming, Snorkelling. I'm still planning to have a go at ice-skating and boxing.

I've also read somewhere (that I now can't find), that exercise that is repetitive and has a rhythm is particularly good for mental health as it produces a meditative state. But Nthing, the best exercise is the exercise you do.
posted by kjs4 at 4:21 PM on November 19, 2010

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