If you’re one of the 20 percent of Australians struggling with mild depression, there is a simple fitness solution that will put colour back into your life.
by Matthew Solan
Are you still trying to shake off worries about the global financial crisis? Do recent tragedies such as the tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan, the Brisbane floods or the devastating Christchurch earthquake leave you feeling helpless? Just when you could benefit the most from the psychological perks of exercise, are you skipping workouts to stay home and watch darts on Fox Sports?
You may be suffering from low-grade depression, formally known as dysthymia, which is milder and tougher to identify than acute depression.
Go ahead, duck the diagnosis with a half-hearted “I’m okay”, but that’s part of the problem. Unless a guy ends up in a foetal position under the bed clinging to a bottle of 40-day-old Scotch, he’s likely to shrug off the suggestion that he’s depressed. That explains why women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression: it’s not that more of them get depressed; they’re just more apt to admit it.
THE GUY VERSION
While acute depression tends to be more severe and short-lived – lasting six to eight months – dysthymia can continue for more than two years, with no longer than two-month periods without symptoms. The hallmarks of dysthymia include two or more of the following signs that impair work, social or personal functioning:
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
- Fatigue or low energy
- Indecisiveness or reduced concentration
- Poor self-image
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Social withdrawal
- Conflicts with family and friends.
Associated signs include sexual dysfunction, guilt, obsession, addiction, anxiety or fear. For men, there can also be an element of anger. “Masculine depression has an abrasive, agitated edge to it,” says Dr John Lynch, co-author of The Pain Behind the Mask: Overcoming Masculine Depression (amazon.com).
What triggers dysthymia in men? Sometimes, just being a man. “The essence of the masculine culture is based on healthy self-worth,” says Terrance Real, author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (amazon.com). “Our culture teaches young men to filter their sense of well-being through performance. You are either a winner or a loser, dominator or dominated. Men’s self-esteem tends to go up and down like the stock exchange. In fact, some men’s self-esteem goes up and down with the stock exchange.”
Recent large-scale tragic events, such as this year’s Brisbane floods, the killer tsunami and unfolding nuclear disasters in Japan, or the devastating Christchurch earthquake, can leave men touched by these catastrophes feeling helpless. “Helplessness is the direct opposite of the mandate of traditional masculinity,” says Real. “The one thing you cannot feel, as a man’s man, is helpless and vulnerable. That’s coded as feminine and weak.”
Suppressing such emotions may turn into dysthymia, which can intensify feelings of vulnerability. “When men have depression, they don’t want to admit it,” says Real. “And some men do such a good job of hiding their depression that they manage to hide it from themselves.”
Self-awareness is avoided by excessive drinking or womanising, isolating or lashing out; the latter can range from general irritability to domestic violence. “What you get is not just the depression itself, but also the defences a man is using to ward off the depression.”
WORKING IT OUT
Recognising the problem is the top priority; after that, medication and therapy are commonly used to treat depression, whether mild or severe. But Lynch believes that exercise and proper nutrition should always be part of the first line of defence. “These are easy to implement with most people, and they can offer maximum benefit,” he says. “You can’t change depression if your body is out of shape.”
Regular doses of physical activity can reduce feelings of depression. Researchers at Duke University in the US found that three 30-minute workouts each week brought as much depression relief as drug treatment. In a follow-up study, nearly 40 percent of patients relying on drugs relapsed within six months, compared to 8 percent of those who stuck to exercising.
When investigators at the University of California at San Diego tackled the topic – drawing from data collected on nearly 2000 subjects over two decades – they found that those who exercised at least three times a week had lower levels of depression. Those who had given up their workouts reported symptoms at the same rate as people who had never exercised.
This effect is often attributed to the release of endorphins (responsible for the famed “runner’s high”) and the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin, which many antidepressants manipulate to achieve their effects.
Consistency matters more than method or intensity. “What’s important is to have an exercise that’s sustainable,” says Dr Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the symptoms of people suffering from depression dropped between one-third and a half when they walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day for 10 days.
But how do you get motivated when you’re feeling so low? “Get a workout buddy,” says Lynch. “Someone who’s going to kick you out the door and prod you to go for a run or get to the gym.” Better yet, hire a personal trainer. That way, you can establish structure and a routine – plus there’s the impetus to avoid having to still pay when you’re a no-show.
“Both work in part like a social obligation,” says Lynch, “so what helps to motivate you is that you’re doing something larger than yourself.”
Or you can simply fall back on dysfunctional gender stereotyping: tell yourself to act like a man, then get off your arse and do it.
Exercise vs depression
Any regular exercise is an effective weapon in battling low-grade depression. The key is consistency: at least 30 minutes three times a week. However, the following forms of exercise do offer some inherent advantages:
Running, cycling – basically anything that gets the heart and sweat glands pumping – appears to work faster than most antidepressants (which require two to four weeks to take effect). Aerobic exercise also releases endorphins at a greater rate than other forms of exercise. A series of studies at the University of Colorado in the US found that doing regular aerobic workouts improved the body’s ability to handle the effects of stress by keeping immunity high and cells undamaged.
Pumping iron increases energy by improving blood circulation and oxygen flow to the brain (always a good thing). Additionally, seeing the progress you’re making can pump up your self-esteem. In fact, researchers at Duke University suggest that exercise may alleviate depression by improving your sense of control.
Mind and body
Exercise that integrates mental and physical disciplines may be more psychologically beneficial than single-activity workouts. A report in Physical Educator found that university students who combined either guided imagery or tai chi with self-defence training for eight weeks showed significantly less anxiety and depression than a control group.
It sounds mundane, but if you’re depressed, taking a 15-minute walk at lunch may do more for you than waking up at dawn for a workout, says Dr Michal Artal, assistant professor of psychiatry at Missouri’s St Louis University in the US. Plus, it gets you outside, and outdoor light has been shown to improve mood, especially during the winter months.
The Black Dog Institute is a not-for-profit, educational, research, clinical and community-oriented facility offering specialist expertise in depression and bipolar disorder.
Beyondblue is a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related substance misuse disorders in Australia.