Rx for depression-alleviating exercise routine?
January 11, 2014 12:57 PM   Subscribe

How to best use 45 minutes in a gym with the sole purpose of using exercise to alleviate depression symptoms?

I've been asked by my doctor to embark on a two-month period of "vigorous exercise, three to four times a week, for 45 minutes at a time," with a view toward improving my depression. My understanding is that the literature suggests a need for exercise that increases heart rate in order to see results (and that these results take time). What seemed to be insurmountable obstacles in the past now (thankfully) just appear to be caveats. These include:

Time: I can commit to three blocks of 1h20m per week to get from work, to gym, to home in time for dinner/kids/partner. Both partner and I work full-time and have two kids under 4; there never seems to be any time.

Weather: Living in Minnesota so outdoor exercise is a no-go for many more weeks.

Facilities: membership to a relatively no frills gym, but access to free weights and cardiovascular equipment, as well as a pool. Don't know much about basic gym equipment, however.

Physical limitations: knees aren't so hot and I have appallingly poor lung capacity (e.g., burning oh god I'm dying pain after very light jog for two minutes). Otherwise, I'm not overweight and am in good physical health for an early 30s woman, veg diet.

Mental: I get discouraged very, very easily and have never considered myself athletic or coordinated. So, starting a spin class right off the bat might be a sure fire way to demotivate me fully.

What I have enjoyed in the past: weight training, walking, swimming (but again, lung capacity can pose problems here), yoga.

If weight loss occurs, great, but this is not a motivator at all. Added strength and help with creaky joints would be kickass.
posted by thenewbrunette to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
The small amount of research I've been able to find on actual specifics suggest that one must have one's heart rate at 80-85% for at least 35-40 minutes to get the psychological benefits that decrease depression and anxiety. So that generally means 10 minutes of warm-up, 30 minutes of exercise at an increased heart rate.

If you like to walk but your knees are bad, ellipticals are great. I find them easiest if I can watch tv, or listen to podcasts during the exercise. I've never seen a gym without an elliptical trainer, but if yours doesn't have one, you could probably find one used on Craigslist.

I would schedule your time such that you can get 45 minutes on the elliptical as many times per week as you can.
posted by jaguar at 1:07 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Join a gym that offers spinning classes. Spinning is amazing for depression. You can make relationships in class, even if that just means seeing the same people consistently, or actually saying hi and chatting. It is reasonably comfortable and good for the joints. You can usually see yourself in a mirror too, which takes the edge off of being self-conscious (hey, check me out). There's also a little bit of in-your-head competition, an external motivator (the instructor and the music), and you can also take things at your own pace and have a towel and water bottle.

Spinning is the shit. Three times a week is perfect.

On preview: I see you already crossed out spin classes but I say give it a chance. I like it a lot because of "group" instruction. Enough attention to get me out of my head, but not one-on-one either which is too much pressure.
posted by phaedon at 1:11 PM on January 11, 2014

2nd the elliptical. I've found that running is the most expedient way of getting the benefits I want from cardio, but if your knees are bad then go for the elliptical, as long as you have time for. Swimming is pretty good, too, but since you're so busy the changing clothes, showering, changing back, etc. might take up too much precious exercise time.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:13 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Punching the heavy bag. Excellent stress relief and cardio workout. But you should always wear wraps and gloves when doing so and have someone knowledgeable teach you to punch correctly.
posted by pravit at 1:16 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Run. Even with bad knees. I've done all kinds of exercise in my life and they all improve my mood but absolutely nothing beats running and I have arthritis in both knees. Perversely running makes them hurt less (probably because the trauma of running shuts off the nerves - my own ridiculous unfounded theory). I've found the runner's high to be qualitatively different from everything else.

Couch to 5 k will get you there.
posted by srboisvert at 1:16 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think this depends on your own interest and goals. Yeah, there's a lot of research on this, but if you really enjoy lifting, spending your time on the weight machines might be *way* more effective for you than anything else. Or spending your gym time in the pool might be the thing that does it for you.

Try to find the activities you enjoy, to make you look forward to coming to the gym.
posted by colin_l at 1:17 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Elliptical is great! The only thing I would throw in is that running is a more challenging workout, and running will improve bone density and strengthen legs in ways that an elliptical can't (impact is good for you in a lot of ways, even if it can make your knees and ankles hurt).

Anyway, I would say your two goals are to find an activity where you can A.) push yourself a little bit, and B.) enjoy yourself. Be sure to focus on the latter... you already mention some forms of exercise you enjoy, so I would start with those!

And I don't think your doctor means that those 45 minutes have to be non-stop workout mayhem with no pauses, so don't think that this rules out swimming, where you'd need to stop and catch your breath. Your heart rate doesn't drop instantly when you pause a strenuous activity, after all.

In fact, I would really suggest swimming! If you love it already, that would be a fantastic place to start during these winter months. I have poor lung capacity too (thanks, birth defect!) so I usually have to pause to catch my breath for a moment after each length of the pool. But a 30-45 minute swim would be a fantastic full body workout, good for your strength, easy on your joints, and easy to challenge yourself and see improvements. You can shake it up by doing some laps with a kickboard or pull buoy, and there are some awesome waterproof underwater MP3 players you can buy to use if that suits your fancy.

Then, when it warms up, you can mix in outdoor walks, which fight depression by letting you see some of the world around you (in addition to getting the heart rate up).

Regular exercise made a huge difference for me in improving my mood and my condition, so I hope it will do the same for you!
posted by Old Man McKay at 1:19 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

1st question: Do you work better if you zone out or do you need constant changes to leep you interested?

1st note: You listed a couple of things you enjoyed. None of them mentioned spinning or ellipticals. Is this because you dislike those things or they're hard on your knees or what?

Basically, stick to what you've enjoyed in the past, while trying a few new things. Crossfit would be good if you enjoy something different everyday. Just get a gentle instructor and realize you don't have to go all out at it. Podrunner can help you zone out while walking on the treadmill
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:19 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Punching the heavy bag. Excellent stress relief and cardio workout. But you should always wear wraps and gloves when doing so and have someone knowledgeable teach you to punch correctly.

This is an excellent suggestion. Years ago I started taking Krav Maga classes just out of interest and found the happy side effect that it did wonders for depression. If your gym offers it (or another martial art, or kickboxing, CrossKick, or even just plain old sport boxing), I'd strongly suggest giving that a try and seeing how you like it.
posted by hartez at 1:27 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you see an exercise physiologist? They are university trained to solve exactly this kind of question: "I have x medical condition and y physical limitations; how can I exercise safely to improve my health?" Unlike a personal trainer, their advice will be evidence-based and grounded in a medical understanding of what's going on in your body. Maybe ask your doctor for a referral?
posted by embrangled at 1:28 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I recently started going to a gym twice a week for 45 minutes as an anti-depressant!

First of all, a great way to increase your heart rate is to do something intensely 20 seconds, and then rest for 10, then do it again for 20 seconds, rest for 10 etc. You only need to do around 4 cycles (e.g. 2 minutes total) to get a benefit. You can do this with weights, or situps, pushups, bag punching. Things that require you to count are good because then your mind will stay focused; more than anything, use this to help you be mindful and focus only on what you are doing. This is probably the thing about my gym routine that helps me most with my mental health.

For example, you could do 4 sets of 20 seconds of 5 lb barbell curls with 10 seconds of rest between each set. Then do 4 sets of 20 seconds of benchpress with 10 seconds of rest between each, then punch the heavy bag as suggested above, etc. Don't be worried about using light weights (on the benchpress I just use an empty bar) just do whatever you can. Do try to make your weights heavier or move to a 40 seconds on, 20 seconds rest cycle as you get more fit.

Before I do the weights, I start off with 10 minutes on the treadmill. I don't tell myself I have to do anything more than just be on the treadmill for 10 minutes. I can walk at 2.0 mph if that's all I can muster. But invariably I end up increasing the speed or incline, going longer than 10 minutes, or even doing some intervals with the 20 seconds fast, 10 seconds rest. Sometimes it's one interval, which is better than none. You may not be able to do a treadmill if you have bad knees, but I bet the elliptical would work for this.

One more thing: I tend to lose motivation quickly if any part of the whole thing is too complicated or requires too much planning and decision making. You've already set aside time, but also know how you will get the gym, where you will like to park if you are driving, and what you want to wear (just pick three outfits and rotate them, or, if you are me, pick one outfit and try to remember to wash it before it gets totally gross). Don't worry about adding variation to your routine-that can come later. Just get yourself there and do some things, including especially just focusing on each moment to gain the mindfulness benefits of this.
posted by gubenuj at 1:45 PM on January 11, 2014

Interval training can improve your aerobic capacity; unless you have a lung disease, it's likely not your lung capacity per se that's a limiting factor, but rather your cardiovascular system's ability to get oxygen to your muscles. Interval training can help, regardless of the activity you choose. Every time I work it into my training routine, I see significant improvement.

Walking is a very good exercise. It's low impact and easy to alternate between brisk walking and a slower recovery pace. If you reach the point where you can't walk any faster, look for videos of racewalking technique. You can do it anywhere, and it doesn't need special equipment beyond comfortable shoes. I'd suggest starting there. A gym track is a good place to walk in the winter without investing in outdoor exercise clothing.

Don't rule out spinning, either. A good instructor should tailor expectations to students' abilities. Because you're on a stationary bike, it's easy to reduce the resistance when you can't take it any longer, while still being part of the group. Having a class is a big motivator for a lot of people, since it's not just you and a machine.

Another aerobic activity to consider is snowshoeing. It's a lot of work, so you'd get instant interval training. It doesn't take a lot of coordination. As long as you have the right clothes, it can be done in a typical Minnesota winter, though probably not when things are the way they are earlier this week. Depending on where you live, you might even be able to do it around your yard or neighborhood. Many golf courses also allow snowshoers and cross-country skiers to use their land during the winter.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:48 PM on January 11, 2014

The best exercise is one you will actually do. My opinion is fuck the literature and fuck optimizing the workout, just do the time and make that your initial goal.

Experiment with activities you've liked in the past. You could also hire a personal trainer for the first 10 workouts.

My suggestion though is to get a bunch of exercise DVDs you can use as a fallback in case you can't make the gym (meeting runs late, kids are sick, it's a snow day, etc) . If you like yoga, do yoga DVDs. Get the mail plan from Netflix (if you are in the us) and try a bunch. I found this easiest to commit to with a preschooler, a demanding job, and a 1-1.5 hour round trip commute.

Also I think it's OK to cheat by doing 30 minutes more often, so long as you get your 135 minutes a week.

Just find something you can actually do without pain and suffering, you don’t have to be perfect and you don't need an optimal heart rate. The more demands you place on yourself, the more likely it is you will abandon the program.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:49 PM on January 11, 2014 [26 favorites]

If you have access to spin classes, they would be absolutely perfect for you for this-I know from experience. If not, I recommend the elliptical. Either would work quite well for the goal you have set.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:51 PM on January 11, 2014

Listen to music you enjoy while exercising. Nothing is more motivating than seeing improvement and getting stronger...going farther, lifting heavier, holding a plank a bit longer. Find an exercise program that mixes it up a bit, provides increasing challenges, and set some goals for yourself. Good suggestions here.
posted by ms_rasclark at 1:52 PM on January 11, 2014

Oh, and if the knees continue to be an issue then try to find access to water aerobics.

I have personally done all these and really, any would work. But I agree the best is whatever you will actually do.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:52 PM on January 11, 2014

Crazycanuck is right, but I'd add something else: the best exercise is one that you will do that is meaningful to you. What makes an exercise (hobby, sport, dance etc) meaningful to you is different for everyone, but it's important to think about.

Would achieving a goal be meaningful for you? Then train for a 5k/10k/half marathon/bike ride/swim/mud run. Learning a new skill? Maybe a martial art or something like rock climbing. Being social? Join a team sport or find a more social gym culture (Olympic lifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, classes etc). Expressing yourself? Dance class.

For instance, I know that I'm deeply competitive, enjoy pushing my boundaries, and increasingly value creative expression, so I do CrossFit and take pole dancing classes. The activities are meaningful to me so I always, always make time for them.
posted by nerdfish at 1:54 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Thorzdad at 1:56 PM on January 11, 2014

Seconding crazycanuck--the best exercise is one that you enjoy enough to stick with. I really love dance cardio-type classes. I've been attending one particular class faithfully for about a year and a half, and I love it. I tried six-week session of a different dance cardio class and liked it as well, so I think there's something specifically about the dance cardio model that appeals to me.

What I like about it:

-the class is fun and social
-the music is energizing
-I'm building endurance, strength and flexibility
-mastering new moves makes me feel a sense of accomplishment--I can follow new routines much more easily now than I could when I started
-my sense of balance has improved
-it's hard to think about much besides what the next move is going to be, so it gives me a mental break when I'm down or depressed

I have a really good instructor who breaks down all the moves and gets us to practice them in stages until we can put them all together. She is clear, knowledgeable, and encouraging, and she also tells participants how to modify moves if they are having issues with knees, shoulders, neck etc.

If you find a good class, where you like the instructor and your classmates, it can be a fun and social way to improve your endurance and coordination.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:57 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Any of the above suggestions are good, but what really matters is that 1) you enjoy it, 2) it isn't too painful, and 3) there's not something that will make you stop... because the most important factor of all is that whatever exercises you choose, you KEEP DOING IT.
posted by stormyteal at 1:57 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I meant to say, even no-frills gyms tend to offer at least one hour-long dance cardio class, so it's quite possible you could do this at your current gym.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:00 PM on January 11, 2014

From my own experience: Having a way to listen to peppy, fun music that will rev you up is key. If you have an iPod, that's ideal. Do some searching on AskMe. There are lots of threads here with great workout music recommendations.

Then, this varies a lot from person to person, but what always works best for me is a treadmill with good handrails that are comfortable to hang onto. I have balance issues and knee problems, and comfortable handrails make using a treadmill a pleasure and safe as well.

Also, make sure the treadmill is sturdy enough and has enough horsepower to operate smoothly. Cheap treadmills that operate with a herky-jerky motion are a real drag.

Running is not necessary. Just WALK as fast as you feel is comfortable for you. Increase speed as you are able. Challenge yourself. Try speeding up. If it's too fast, dial it back some. But don't be afraid to try a little faster from time to time. Record your top speed and how long you were able to maintain it. Try each session to see if you can beat your last session. Compete with yourself as much as you can while still keeping the session fun, comfortable and enjoyable. Game-ify your workout sessions. Oh, and bring a water bottle.

Whatever activity (or activities) you choose, do whatever you need to do to make it as fun and enjoyable as possible.
posted by marsha56 at 2:02 PM on January 11, 2014

Elliptical. Elliptical. ELLIPTICAL! I was much like you - depressed, with poor cardiovascular endurance. I put music on that made me feel defiant, and listened to it on the elliptical, and I would sweat it out. I found that I'd feel amazing afterwards. Now I can do all kinds of exercises - because I had to get over that hill. I am not a huge fan of exercise classes still, because I like to go at my own pace. YMMV, but I really think the elliptical is your best start-out friend. You can go as slow as you need to. Just try it for 20 minutes to start. If you tire out, slow down or stop, and try to go a little longer the next time. Recognize that where you are is where you are, without judgement, and just keep at it. In my opinion, it's the music that's key. Good luck!
posted by pazazygeek at 2:03 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

there are a lot of great answers here about what kinds of activities to do. when i get out of my activity routine, it is TOTALLY hard for me to get back in it, and while i'm doing it, my brain is giving me every reason in the world why i should stop ("this sucks, i'm tired, i don't have time, this teacher is ridiculous, i'm bored, my knee hurts, i'm in a rush, i'll just skip this, i'll just cut this short..." etc etc etc etc etc).

I posted this response to someone else's question that I think could be useful for you when you get into those little brain spirals:

"i used to have a much harder time than i do now at working out. it helped for me to learn a bit about the central nervous system.

As well as our BODIES being out of shape, those messages 'i can't do it, it's too hard, i want to quit' etc are actually a part of our central nervous system (CNS) that's out of shape too.

but when we get in better shape, we're also training our CNS to learn that we won't actually die by working out. so those messages go away.

now, when i hear myself saying "i don't want to go for a run, i can't keep going" i realize that it's not ME being lazy, it's my pre-programmed CNS, and it's normal to hear those messages but it's not going to stop me from going to the gym! and the more i go to the gym, the faster those messages change into 'i can do this, i'm strong.' it's an actual physiological response, as much as bigger muscles or reducing fat is.

(okokok, TECHNICALLY my CNS is part of ME - but it's the part of me that isn't being useful, so that's why i think of it like this.)"
posted by andreapandrea at 2:12 PM on January 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Along with the elliptical, which is a great suggestion for you, do some BASIC weights. Pick whatever weight you can lift 10-12 times and do that twice, waiting 60 seconds between each set. Like twice a week do your biceps and tricepts and twice a week your legs and your chest, right after you finish 30 minutes on the elliptical. It does not take that long, it isn't too strenuous, and it feels really good.
posted by deanc at 2:19 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay, I'm just going to respectfully disagree with those who are telling you to do an exercise you enjoy. You're depressed, ergo, it is highly likely that enjoyment is not in the catalogue of emotions easily available to you. Just make it uncomplicated so that you can stick to it. Enjoyment may or may not come later, and if it works to help you with your depression, perhaps you will realize that you do gain enjoyment from this (it sounds like you have in the past) and/or that there are forms of exercise that do not involve going to the gym that you will like to do.

Also, I would not listen to music unless it helps you with your mindfulness. I really really think that the mindfulness component of the gym workout is a critical part of what makes it an anti-depressant. (If you are unfamiliar with mindfulness for depression, just type those words into your google (or your metafilter).
posted by gubenuj at 2:21 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Last year, I fell in love with biking. There is a lot of variation in pace, lots of stimulus (making it hard to dwell on one thing alone), you get somewhere (making it possible to build into other activities). When I run or walk, I sometimes easily get stuck in my head.

I've also learned that I have to meaningfully plan to use the time to work through things. Feeling anxious after an event? Allow yourself to work through that anxiety during the exercise, and then try to let yourself let it go afterwards.
posted by troytroy at 2:32 PM on January 11, 2014

I would start with walking on a treadmill or elliptical. Just pop in some music or a podcast you enjoy, and walk. Whatever speed works for you, for the full time you have allotted. Do this for a few weeks, just to get you in better condition. After a few weeks, play around with the speed and the incline to make it harder. (If the treadmill has various programs, I like to do a hill setting--you don't have to pay attention to the variety and the changes make it a little more engaging.) Do this for a couple more weeks.

Now you're ready to embark on a more systematic plan. You might try the Couch-to-5K program on the elliptical (I prefer doing this on an elliptical because you control your speed--you don't have to fuss with the treadmill when it's time to change speeds, and it's easier on the knees.)

Or, if you like swimming, switch to swimming. What I love about swimming is that I can't bring music or media with me, so it gives me half an hour of peace and quiet, which is just sort of amazingly restorative to me. (Of course, you could also just pop in earplugs and do this on elliptical too.)

Another thing that always makes me feel better is weight training. Making my muscles physically exhausted helps relieve tension and helps me sleep better.
posted by elizeh at 2:32 PM on January 11, 2014

Oh, rowing machines are great, too! 10 or 15 minutes can wear you out, if you're not used to working out. 15 minutes on a rowing machine and 15 minutes on a stair-climber, both at as high of a level as you can sustain, would be a great short exercise session that I bet would put your brain in order.

(uh, which is how I always think of it. Regular exercise is the best thing I've ever done to keep my mood better overall and lower my anxiety levels. I'm excited for you!)
posted by jeweled accumulation at 2:35 PM on January 11, 2014

The answer is whatever interests you and works for your body, as long as you keep showing up and challenge yourself a little bit every time. Don't get discouraged if you don't see immediate results or don't really like anything at first; it takes a little time to feel the difference, but once you notice it, you'll really appreciate it.

If you've enjoyed swimming before, don't rule it out. Start with backstroke (easier to breathe!) and work your way to breaststroke and crawl once you've got a handle on that. Your aerobic capacity will increase with practice.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:42 PM on January 11, 2014

Ellipticals are terrific. So are water rowers.

But you need a sport. Let me suggest table tennis, which is very much like playing chess while you're running around. Trust me, there is no room for intrusive thoughts if you're playing, it is immersive, and you only get better with practice. It's much gentler on the joints than standard tennis. Another plus side, I've never known another sport where people laugh so much or play into their nineties competitively.
posted by vers at 3:07 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Any kind of at least medium-intensity cardio, 30-60 mins 5-6 days a week. Mix it up to minimize risk of injury -- gym membership helps with this (classes, different machines). Swimming for relaxation, evenings. I also have knee problems -- hate the bike and elliptical, stairmaster and rower are ok, who knows why. It's trial and error, individual. Would avoid running. Walking is excellent and risk-minimal. Attend to form, attend to pain.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:38 PM on January 11, 2014

I agree that the best exercise you can do is the one you WILL do. I tried to force myself to become a runner for a LONG TIME before I realized that I absolutely detest it and if anything was keeping me from exercising as much as I could. On the other hand, my Mom seems to find the elliptical a million times harder than running and she hates it. So it's kind of up to your individual body and what feels good to you -- I'm a big believer that exercise should not actually make you feel like you want to die (especially if you are doing it for psychological reasons!!) I would begin approaching it by trying some different things out and seeing what works for you.

For me personally, I love the elliptical, as well as swimming (but only in warm weather -- even at an indoor pool, I hate having to leave the gym with wet hair rather than showering at home -- ymmv.) I also enjoy spin class and some other classes at my gym from time to time, but I think it's not the way to start out as it can be intimidating -- I might try other stuff first and then 'graduate' to the group stuff. I also enjoy 'circuit training' in the weight room...bascically you do a weight machine, then do some jumping jacks or other calisthenics during your 'rest', and then back to the weights. There are lots of tips online with how to do this if you're interested...I find it makes me feel super POWERFUL! :)

I also want to put in a plug for Erin Stutland's Shrink Sessions. They are a little pricey ($99 for the whole program), but she'll send you a free sample workout to see if you like it. They're video workouts with positive affirmations that you say along with the different moves. It can feel kind of silly, but I personally LOVE it, and I can see how it would be extra good to do if your goal is improving depression. Probably not for everyone, but just thought I'd throw it out there. :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:15 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

All I know is, exercise was a goddamn chore until I started swimming. I used to drag my ass to spin class or to do time on the elliptical and it sucked so hard. But I look forward to swimming every day, it's really fun!

The nice thing about swimming is you can adjust it to literally any fitness level. I too use exercise as an antidepressant and it works well for me, with 30-minute swims 5 days a week. And I am so slow compared to a lot of the other swimmers, but I don't care, I get my heart rate up and I feel good after a workout.

Good luck!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 5:41 PM on January 11, 2014

As an easily discouraged, non-athletic person, I found that classes were actually a great way to stay positive about exercise, stick with it, and make progress. What about calling your gym and seeing if they can recommend a class for you? Some instructors are great at keeping beginners engaged and motivated, and the support and instruction really demystify the gym experience (no wandering around feeling like you don't know what to do). Or at least, that was my experience.

Alternatively, does the gym offer personal training? You could do a session or two with the specific goal of developing a routine you can do on your own.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:37 PM on January 11, 2014

Your absolute best bet is high intensity interval training. Basically you do a burst of very strenuous workout and then do a comfortable workout as a resting period, and keep going back and forth. On a treadmill you, you can achieve it by warming up for 10 minutes, then breaking into a fast sprint for a minute or two until it starts to get hard, and then do a light jog until your heart rate drops back down to your typical jogging level, which can take 1-3 minutes maybe. On the elliptical, I do this by doing a comfortable, low resistance at 130 rotations per minute, and then I jack up the resistance by between 5 and 10 levels and aim for 160 rotations per minute. I do that for just one minute and then I go back down to the easy ellipitical mode for 3 minutes. And I just do that for about a half hour with a 10 minute warm up and cool down.

The reason "HIIT" or high intensity interval training is good for this is that the runners high and all that comes out without you having to exercise for a really long time. HIIT is designed to give you a full workout in a short amount of time, so if you only wanted to workout for a half hour, you could do 20 minutes of HIIT (I'd still just make sure you warm up and cool down for 5 minutes before and after) and get all the benefits. HIIT is also good because you push your heart, but not for a sustained period of time, just enough to signal to your body that you need to deliver oxygen better to your body. You'll quickly notice you get less winded climbing stairs or doing other everyday activities that might have you breathing heavy. Honestly, just out some stuff on HIIT. The New York Times has done a few interesting articles on HIIT, if you want to google them. Basically, HIIT is better at getting you in shape than other types of workouts and you'll sweat a lot and generally feel accomplished when you're done.

Since you are new to working out, start slow. I recommend ellipitical because it's very easy to do and low impact. Just ensure you don't bounce and the movement is controlled. But I'd do some normal, comfortable workouts on an ellipitical with a steady pace and once you're good with it, start introducing HIIT a few days a week.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:48 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Try swimming. At first any combination of strokes will do. As you get stronger, you can do crawl with just your arms if you are having knee issues.

Consider following your exercise with time outside, or a couple of minutes in a tanning bed for the extra light, not actual tanning. The light may help just as much.
posted by 101cats at 9:48 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's been a couple of suggestions for Couch to 5k, which I'd also recommend.

The reason it would suit you well is that it takes account of "appalling lung capacity" and gently gets you up to being able to run 5k. Also, running is actually good for your knees.

Once you are comfortable going for a run without wanting to collapse, it's a great way to excercise with no fuss: you just lace up and head out the door without having to drive anywhere or find change in precise denominations for gym lockers.

Nowadays, whenever I go somewhere new, my first thought is "I wonder where is good to run here?" It even factored into my decision making when buying a house! There is a cute park and lake 2km from my front door, so I run there, do a couple of laps of lake and then run home again as my go-to 40 min run.

Podcasts are great - the suggestion to check out Podrunner is worth following up on. He creates mixes at a fixed tempo that you can run to - really helpful for maintaining a pace if you start training seriously enough that you start throwing a tempo run into your workouts. The 'Mojo for Running' podcast is also good to give you some starter tips about running. I often listen to that while running. The other good podcast to listen to is the MeFi podcast! Nothing like getting your Metafilter fix while running ;)

I've been running regularly for a year and it is one of the best things I have ever done.
posted by man down under at 11:48 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've had very good luck with heavy weight training (a la Starting Strength), and would recommend it for your purposes. It may not achieve your heart-rate goals, but the exertion and progress can be extremely mood-elevating. Even better if you add a run or vigorous spin on some sort of cardio machine as a warm-up.

Nthing running as well, particularly given your stated time constraints. There's no travel time, you just step outside and start exercising. I realize that it's especially cold in your part of the world, but I would question your assumption that outdoor activities aren't an option until Spring. I have comfortably run in temperatures down to 0° F by properly layering, and have actually come to prefer running in near-freezing weather.

Regardless of the major gym activities you decide upon, I've found that my mood can be dramatically improved by performing a short set of body weight exercises immediately when I get up in the morning. Especially squats. <10 minutes, and an extremely positive way to start the day.
posted by lordcorvid at 6:21 AM on January 12, 2014

Hi, you have an awesome doctor. In September I basically abandoned the doctor I had gone to for help and decided to try the "fitness cure" on my own. A book I found extremely helpful is The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi. His recommendations are research-based and I believe he recommends brisk walking for 30 minutes 3 times a week--I may not have that correct because I do more than that, I jog 60-90 minutes 4x/week.

Another crucial aspect for me (and strongly recommended in that book) is to work out with a buddy. There are several great reasons for it, and they all ring true for me but the two main ones are 1. I won't flake on an appointment I've scheduled with my jogging buddy, and 2. social interaction is another key tenet of the "depression cure." Jogging together has deepened and strengthened the existing friendships I had with my two workout buddies.

As some others posted above don't overwhelm yourself by trying to be perfect; start where you are and do what you enjoy and are comfortable with. When the weather improves, get outside (another tenet of the book I recommended.)

It really has been a miracle cure for me, and I hope it is for you too. Me-mail me anytime if you need a buddy. I'm a woman in my thirties too. Also, keep your doctor and give them a high five! I was frustrated by how prescription-happy mine was when that wasn't working for me at all.
posted by palegirl at 8:33 AM on January 12, 2014

Hey, exercising is definitely my antidepressant, and I think for me the most important thing is that the 'activation energy' is low enough that you will go almost every day for half an hour. So I would start off doing something mild on most days, and then doing something 'fun and social' once or twice a week (especially if your depression is related to loneliness, which more often than not it is).

So if I were in your position, I might do half an hour of fairly comfortable cardio (swimming, elliptical, walking) while watching videos on my phone or listening to a podcast/pumped up music 6x a week + sign up for one dance/yoga/aerobics class which involves looking silly with other people and bouncing up and down.That cheers me up big time, but doing it every day would be too much.

Good luck! It works so well! Jogging works for some people but jogging cold and alone while looking gross sort of makes me feel worse. So just check how you feel about the activity even before you start (be honest) and try out ones which seem appealing (skip the ones which you might dread). Basically, make it easy most days, make it fun one or two days a week.

Have fun! :)
posted by dinosaurprincess at 11:53 AM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

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