Exercise Beats Antidepressants

Blog post by Nathaniel Wells

Throughout my career, no single word is better at making a client cross their arms, groan in disdain, or look out the window, than “exercise.” My favourite anecdote from a client is: “I get it, but why recommend exercise when I’ve spent my life actively trying to avoid it?” Touché! And fair enough – exercise looks hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

What Gets in the Way?

Psychological research has shown, many times now, that exercise can be just as effective at reducing symptoms of depression as antidepressants. Most of the research highlights that exercise is an effective treatment in mild and moderate depression, but not as effective in severe depression (though still helpful). Exercise is also free and doesn’t require booking a session with you GP or going through a psychiatrist! But something always stops us, and I have some guesses about some reasons.

We are all consumers to the notion that “exercise is good for your health” or “exercise will make you happy.” If I had a dollar for every time that I’ve heard those statements, I might be able to pay for some of my clients’ gym memberships. We’re thrown all these unclear statements about why we should exercise, but what it comes down to is this: it’s hard to get started, we don’t know where or how to start, and we’re often stuck comparing ourselves to everyone else.

The most common challenge that I encounter with my clients, besides the difficulty of exercise, is that they don’t “see themselves” as runners, gym attendees, sportspeople, and the like. This comes down to identifying yourself as someone who exercises in a certain way. Where everyone seems to fail, however, is that they think there is a register somewhere that lists everyone who is a “runner” and allows them to have the title because they’ve run a certain amount. What I can tell you is that, unlike psychologists, who need qualifications, you don’t need any qualifications to be someone who exercises.

The next challenge is that we’re all keen for a quick fix. It would be nice if we could jog for ten minutes and be overwhelmed by happiness. Not only that, but we’re also assailed by comparisons of fit people on Instagram who seem overwhelmed by happiness every rep of their gym set (and look buff doing it). What I can say to this is manage your expectations, watch how much time you spend comparing yourself to everyone else, and try your best to focus on yourself. And remember this: people only post on social media their best efforts. You never see all the challenges that went into achieving that post. But you will experience all of your growth, post-worthy times and all.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way

So, to manage the difficulty, the uncertainty, and the identity aspects of exercise, I have compiled some handy tips to provide some direction:

  1. Find a type of exercise that interests you or that you already enjoy. There is no one type of “valid” or “better” exercise. There is just what works for you! I knew of an 80-year-old client whose exercise was doing her gardening, and that’s just as valid as yoga, cycling or footy.
  2. Set a small, achievable goal for the frequency and length of your exercise. Two times a week is usually a good place to start, for around 30-minutes if you can. Research suggests that more frequent exercise is better than longer durations when you are trying to establish a new habit, and therefore identifying yourself as someone who exercises. Also, by making the goals small, they aren’t as hard!
  3. Introduce a “self-monitor” into your regime. This means writing down somewhere how long you exercised for, how you felt afterward, and seeing if you have improved. This makes you more aware of any immediate benefits of exercise and can motivate you more.
  4. If you lapse on your habit, don’t worry. Just because you missed a day doesn’t mean it’s the end of your adoption of exercise. Just start back on the next scheduled day, and if you’re starting from the beginning, you’re now starting with more experience.
  5. Remember that it doesn’t happen overnight. Changes in mood happen gradually, and as you sustain a new habit, those changes will come.
  6. Let other people know your habit change, and/or seek out others to exercise with. Other people can help keep you to your habits and exercising with others is very motivating.

For some further recommendations on where to start, you can follow this link to an informative article by the Black Dog Institute about exercise and depression: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/5-exercise_depression.pdf

Best of All: It’s Evidence-Based

Remember, these recommendations are substantiated by research findings highlighting that exercise is effective at treating depression (and anxiety, in some cases), but this is not the case for everyone. Regular therapy is still the preferred course of action, where a therapist can be collaborated with to find what kind of exercise works for you, in conjunction with psychotherapy. If you are struggling, remember to reach out!

And the best bit comes last: This whole blog post needs a bit of grounding in research. Below are some research articles about the use of exercise in treatment depression and anxiety:

Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry6(3), 104.

Josefsson, T., Lindwall, M., & Archer, T. (2014). Physical exercise intervention in depressive disorders: Meta‐analysis and systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports24(2), 259-272.

Ströhle, A. (2009). Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. Journal of neural transmission116(6), 777-784.