Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But does it feel good?
The answer is supposed to be yes. Upon experiencing the physical stress of working out, your brain releases neurochemicals (eg. endorphins) that leave you in a better mood—or so we’re told.
I’ve always been a fairly active individual, playing several sports as a child and sticking with soccer through to university. When my team disbanded and I didn’t find another, I discovered the wonders of the gym and the likes of November Project (6AM cardio, anyone?). Some stretches of time I let other aspects of life get in the way, falling off the fitness bandwagon; but overall, I loved the feeling of being physically active and would find ways to re-prioritize exercise after spending some time away from it.
And then I got sick.
My body started dysregulating itself in September of 2014 after I experienced a flu-like illness. For the longest time, doctors couldn’t find any objective markers that proved to them that my body was sick, and the only explanation offered to me was that I had depression (disclaimer: we’ve now discovered other explanations for my symptoms including tickborne illness, SIBO, and perhaps a PANDAS/PANS-like illness). When I first visited a psychologist in October 2015, she noted that I hadn’t been exercising for a few months.
“Go back to the gym,” she said. “Exercise is nature’s antidepressant.”
Okay, fair enough. I was hesitant to try another antidepressant (after initially failing to see any effects from taking bupropion (aka Wellbutrin/Zyban) in November 2014), and she casually remarked that people report improvement after 6 weeks of regular exercise similar to that of taking medications. And by this time I had paused my 4th year of university studies, which meant I had a lot of time on my hands.
I followed her recommendation diligently. I went to the gym on average 3 times a week from October 2015 to January 2016. I wish I could say that the exercise helped, but it just… didn’t. There was the intellectual triumph from knowing that “Hey I did something good for my body,” and “Hey I actually got out of the house today,” but there was no organic feeling of “You know what, that actually made me feel good.” And ironically enough, I actually gained 15 lbs during this short period of time, with no other changes to my lifestyle. As a conventionally small Asian girl who has always maintained a fairly steady weight, that was quite alarming.
Flash forward to the present day and I’ve just begun another cycle of getting back to the gym. But this time is different-shortly after starting my workouts, I feel that “runner’s high” and extra “zing” in my brain. There’s a genuine desire to break a sweat in order to keep that positive energy flowing, not to mention the additional benefit of eventually having a fitter body.
So what’s the takeaway here?
- The gym and I: we’re on again 😀
- Exercising didn’t help my symptoms when I was diagnosed with depression. I figure there are 2 ways to look at this, either:
- a) depression was an inaccurate primary diagnosis (I know I’ve dealt with depression-like feelings over the past few years, but I never felt like depression was the root cause of my symptoms), or:
- b) exercise doesn’t help some people with depression.
- In my case it seems to be the former, because my doctor and I have found several other abnormalities in my health since then.
- For everyone else, I recommend tempering your expectations when it comes to exercising. Go there knowing that above all else, you are benefiting your physical body; if you also feel emotional benefit from it, that’s just icing on the cake.
Has anyone reading this found that regular exercise lifted them from feeling depressed? I’m curious to hear firsthand accounts regarding the effects of exercise on mental health; let me know what your experiences are in the comments below!