The Gym and I: Are We On (Again) or Off (Again)?

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 moodor 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.

exercise, gym, mental health, fitness, depression, mental illness

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!

16 Comments

  1. March 28, 2018 / 2:33 am

    Exercise is a tricky one for me. I walk, do yoga, sometimes swim and of course my essential Physio exercises when I can, but often just don’t have the energy to do so. It feels good to my mind to exercise, but it often hurts and tires my body. I feel accomplished when I have exercised, but it just takes so much out of me. I’m trying to be kind to myself though, and try not to be angry or disappointed if my body isn’t up to exercising for a while. It can be a really tricky balancing act, for sure!

  2. March 28, 2018 / 5:40 pm

    I hear you! Luckily my energy levels are in a better place right now, but I also had times in the past where summoning the energy to move my body around just wasn’t in the cards for stretches at a time. In those instances, being kind to yourself is definitely a good reminder!

  3. March 31, 2018 / 12:01 pm

    I really like what you said! I think it’s a powerful to realize that exercise may not help you right at the moment you’re sweating it out, but you’re doing your future self a favour by sticking with it. It’s also helpful to hear the relationship that others have had with exercise and that I’m not alone! Thanks for the well wishes 🙂

  4. March 31, 2018 / 7:28 pm

    I’ve had depression since my teens as well as a recent diagnosis of Fibromyalgia. Previously in my 20’s going to the gym felt so goooood. I lost weight, I got strong, I consistently beat my personal bests and I loved it. But then depression got worse, anxiety joined in and BPD came along as well and exercising actually made me want to cry. Every failure at the gym I had met before with the determination to get better at it, now I just felt desperately unhappy and disappointed with myself. As medications increased, and weight gain followed I got so disheartened I left the gym. It took some time, but I embraced my new body after 10 years of fighting myself and now in my mid thirties I’m round, I’m happy when I can be and I’m ok when I’m not. I walk my dog most days. I do low impact fun stuff at home, like a 20 minute dance party, air boxing or yoga. I do it for fun. To feel good. I don’t love being less active than I was, but I’ve found joy in what I can do and I love this body, in all its brokenness, that gets me through every day.

    • March 31, 2018 / 10:01 pm

      Thank you for sharing your story with me! It can be so saddening to look back on your past and realize how different it once was, and how unlikely you are to “reclaim” that place you once occupied. But I’m really happy to hear that you have learned to adjust to your circumstances and are finding ways to feel good in the present. Letting go of the past and becoming more future-oriented has been a helpful frame of mind to adopt 🙂

  5. March 31, 2018 / 10:03 pm

    I’m never been one to spend time in the gym. As a kid I was skin and bones I was such a runt. But as I’ve gotten older and my metabolism has slowed down I definitely need to work that much harder. Weight loss is key for me now and although I have been very fatigued since my Lyme diagnosis I am going to try and push through it and walk a little each day. Movement always has been a factor for me. I just need to get moving now more than ever.

    • April 1, 2018 / 8:29 am

      I think walking a little each day is a great start. Build the habit of moving each day so that it’s a regular part of your routine, and work up from there. I find that having something else to do in addition to the exercise really helps me get through the sessions, eg. also listening to a podcast, or making it the goal to walk to a certain spot so I can take a photo there.

      • April 1, 2018 / 8:44 am

        I used to walk on the treadmill we have and watch an episode of breaking bad on Netflix I still have two seasons to go. So there is that …but I like the taking a picture idea too.

  6. April 4, 2018 / 1:32 pm

    Reblogged this on Plant Power and commented:
    Basically what she said, put perfectly

  7. April 22, 2018 / 7:56 am

    For me, exercise is KEY to my mood and energy. If I don’t exercise, I feel “badly” mentally AND physically. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but for me, definitely it does! I enjoyed your post!

    • April 22, 2018 / 11:20 am

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment! I’m glad that your relationship with exercise is more clearcut for you. So far this year, the times I’ve gone to exercise have been great. Wishing you well and a happy Sunday 🙂

  8. April 23, 2018 / 1:42 pm

    I like Yoga exercises. My husband says I’m calmer after these. They just make me feel good in a way I can’t really explain. I also enjoy walking at the park. Being outside lifts my spirits.

    • April 24, 2018 / 5:42 pm

      A few people have mentioned yoga to me now; I think I really need to get my butt out of my house into a class! I agree with the idea of getting out in nature, that’s a good one to remember on the days that I feel cooped up inside.

  9. April 24, 2018 / 2:32 pm

    My exercising has helped me a lot, but I was also on medication. The medication just wasn’t enough any more. I think it helps with stress the most, and that helps with my depression and GAD.

    • April 24, 2018 / 4:50 pm

      I’m glad to hear that it works for you! It seems so different depending on everyone’s situation. It can be difficult finding the combination of things that reduce symptoms, but once you do it’s so worth it.

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