By Robert Schinetsky
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in America, affecting some 40 million adults in the United States each year.
The default option for the treatment of depression is usually a mix of counseling and prescriptions.
However, many medications also come with either tolerance, addiction, or unwanted side effects.
This has led both researchers and those afflicted to search for more natural remedies for combating the symptoms of depression, including physical activity and herbs.
Today, we’ll investigate the duality that is depression and fitness — how depression affects fitness and how fitness affects depression.
Let’s get started.
How Depression Affects Fitness
The research is pretty clear — exercise, of all kinds, is effective not only for reducing symptoms associated with depression, but it may also protect against it from happening in the first place. [1,2,3]
In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials including 1877 participants found that resistance training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Furthermore, researchers found that exercise was as effective as conventional treatments, such as medication or cognitive behavioral therapy, for treating symptoms of depression.
Part of the reason for this is that physical activity ignites a physiological cascade of changes in the body that include increased levels of “happy hormones” such as dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and serotonin.
Plus, exercise also helps decrease stress levels and increase an individual’s overall health and well-being, eliminating one more thing over which to feel glum.
Additionally, research shows that not only does regular exercise have acute benefits for those suffering from depression, it also confers long lasting ones.
A study in depressed adults found that those who participated in a fitness program for 12 weeks experienced greater improvements in anxiety, depression, and self-concept that those who didn’t. Furthermore, the group that exercised also maintained those improvements throughout the ensuing year. 
Plus, you don’t even have to do that much exercise to get the mood-elevating effects.
A large study involving over 1.2 million U.S. adults found that as little as 20 minutes per day of physical activity can lead to better mental wellbeing. 
Being depressed may lead to decreased physical activity, which can lead to further health-related complications.
In fact, studies demonstrate that depressed individuals are less fit and have less work capacity on the order of 80-90% of what they should be capable of performing for their age. 
Furthermore, neuroscientists have noted that the hippocampus is smaller in depressed individuals. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps regulate mood.
Why is this noteworthy?
Well, exercise increases levels of a protein in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF stimulates nerve cell growth (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus as well as differentiation and survival of neurons, which enhances nerve cell connections and may help relieve depression. 
Researchers have also noted that BDNF levels are reduced in individuals with major depressive disorder. 
This begets the question…
Why Is It Hard to Exercise When You’re Depressed?
Low Dopamine & Seratonin Levels
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter heavily involved with mood, motivation, and reward while serotonin is a neurotransmitter most well-known for its role in a person’s well-being and happiness.
Studies note that depressed individuals have lower levels of these two neurotransmitters. 
Essentially, having low levels of dopamine and serotonin can make it hard to have the urge or desire to get amped up for training or do anything else for that matter.
You feel apathetic and/or fatigued, making it that much harder to exercise in any form.
Individuals struggling with depression can also experience feelings of anxiety, where they are worried about how they will be perceived by their peers.
Basically, the idea of going to the gym where you may be judged by others doesn’t sit too well. And rather than deal with that possibility, you’re more likely to stay in and not exercise.
Furthermore, as a result of these anxious feelings, you may choose to ablate these notions with high-calorie foods, meaning not only are you not exercising, but you’re also not eating very well. This, inevitably, can lead to weight gain and further feelings of sadness and unhappiness.
When people are depressed, there can be a constant stream of negative self-talk, which creates doubt in the mind, ultimately leading to feelings of apathy and/or futility.
What this means is, rather than feel empowered or positive about completing any sort of exercise, a person struggling with depression may feel that nothing is ever good enough.
Lack of Support
When struggling with symptoms of depression, individuals may feel lonely and/or isolated. They may also allow once vibrant friendships with due to feelings of inadequacy or an inability to seem cheerful and energetic.
This means that when an individual tries to get started down the road towards health and fitness, they may be walking it alone, initially, which can foster more feelings of depression.
Can You Make Progress While Depressed?
Of course, you can…provided your nutrition, training, and sleep is adequate.
The caveat is that progression (while possible) can be much more difficult when dealing with symptoms of depression than when you’re not.
For instance, you may not be as motivated to push past the point of comfort in training (or even train at all, as we mentioned above).
Studies have shown that exercise can help with depression by improving hormonal levels and increases overall mood.
At times like this, it can be helpful to have a training partner or a workout buddy there with you to help push you when you’re not able to do it yourself. We’ll discuss more how to gain motivation and make progress during your workouts when dealing with symptoms of depression ahead, but first, let’s discuss…
Can You Get Weaker When Battling Depression?
Unfortunately, yes, it is possible to feel weaker in the gym when battling depression.
When battling symptoms of depression, likely, an individual isn’t eating in accordance with their fitness goals, nor are they sleeping sufficiently, or able to muster their usual amount of intensity when training.
Due to this combination of factors, you can likely lose strength and become weaker in the gym when battling bouts of depression.
However, it’s important to realize that these declines in strength are no means a long term or permanent.
Furthermore, it’s important to not let small setbacks de-motivate or discourage.
Simply showing up and putting in the work can be a victory in and of itself.
Remember, fitness is a journey, not a one-night stand.
How to Gain the Motivation to Workout While Suffering from Depression
If you’re struggling with finding the motivation to exercise, don’t focus on finding the best workout, pushing yourself to the brink of exhaustion when you exercise, or even training everyday.
Trying to take on too much too soon is a recipe for disaster when struggling with feelings of depression.
Start with baby steps. Instead of tackling a 6-day push/pull/legs split or triathlon, make it a goal to go for a 10-15 min walk daily.
Once you get used to incorporating a small amount of physical activity into your daily routine, then you can slowly start to progress your training and undertake more time and labor-intensive activities, such as resistance training, spinning, running, etc.
You don’t need to tackle the mountain in a giant leap, but you do need to start taking steps in that direction.
Moreover, research notes that depressed individuals with low levels of fitness may experience more enjoyment from moderate-intensity exercise (60%–80% maximum heart rate) over more intense forms of physical activity. 
Do Something You Love
When you’re depressed, doing anything (let alone “killing” your workout) can seem like a monumental task.
As such, when it comes to your fitness, don’t focus on finding the most optimal workout or time of day to train.
As a famous shoe manufacturer said, “just do it!”
Pick something, anything, and give it all you’ve got, even if all you’ve got is minimal effort.
Something is always better than nothing.
If you do something you love, you have something to look forward to, and that alone may be the motivation to get you in the gym or into the outdoors and get your physical activity for the day.
It doesn’t have to be perfect right now. It just needs to be something, and that something can be whatever you want — running, yoga, pilates, CrossFit, traditional resistance-training. Hell, it can even be the most brotastic arm workout ever, if it gets you up and moving.
Getting off the couch and exercising is a win in and of itself when struggling with depression, that is why as you progress in your fitness plan, it’s important to celebrate these victories and reward yourself accordingly for each mini-victory.
What exactly constitutes a “reward” is entirely up to you and your preferences.
Maybe it’s buying yourself some new workout attire or having an epic cheat meal, or it could be something as simple as watching an extra episode or two of your favorite Netflix show.
Cheat meals are not only good to help with the mental aspect but can also help boost weight loss and keep progression going.
Whatever it may be, pick something that gets you excited and motivates you to workout, if for no other reason than to get that alluring reward.
Otherwise, you may not be as inclined to tackle your workout for the day.
Set Realistic Goals
Echoing what we said under the “Start Small” category, it’s important to set realistic goals when undertaking any new exercise plan when dealing with depression. Setting too lofty (unrealistic) goals, and then failing to meet them can send you spiraling back down into the dark chasm that is depression.
For example, let’s say that you decide to start lifting weights and want to build muscle.
What you don’t want to do is expect that you’ll add 20 lbs of muscle in the next 4 weeks. That’s simply an unrealistic goal — even for a newbie, using “special” sports supplements — and when you fail to meet it after four weeks of training, you’re likely to feel dejected and subsequently unmotivated to keep working out.
A more realistic goal would be to focus on adding 5-10 pounds of muscle over the course of a year or improving your lift totals by 10-20 pounds over the course of a mesocycle.
If you don’t have performance-based goals, you may have physique-based ones, such as losing 5 pounds over the next 4 weeks. This is a goal that is entirely achievable over the course of a month.
Have a Workout Partner
Even those of us that don’t struggle with feelings of depression have trouble staying motivated to hit the gym regularly from time to time.
Having a workout buddy or training partner there to encourage and push you during training can do wonders to keep you engaged and focused on your workouts.
Get a Support System
Realize that you aren’t alone in your endeavor to get healthy and fit.
Having a support network of family and friends can be a HUGE help in undertaking and maintaining your exercise and nutrition plan.
If you’re embarking on a new fitness journey, let those around you know, and lean on them for support and encouragement when you’re struggling with self-motivation. A few kind words from a friend or loved one can have a huge impact on helping you stay the course.
Depression-Based Eating Habits and How to Handle
For many people, dealing with bouts of depression means a loss of energy and appetite. However, for others, feelings of sadness or inadequacy can make them overeat.
This can lead to emotional eating whereby individuals use food as a coping mechanism, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food as well as unwanted fat gain — further contributing to feelings of sadness.
While there isn’t a specific diet that cures depression, adhering to your normal eating habits as well as consuming a nutrient-rich diet may help manage symptoms of depression.
There is some research to show that certain diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) are better than others for depression. 
Plus, a 2017 meta-analysis also concluded: 
“A dietary pattern characterized by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression. A dietary pattern characterized by high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression.”
● Omega-3 fatty acids
● Vitamin B12
● Vitamin B6
The takeaway here is that taking a whole food-focused approach to your nutrition plan (fruits, veggies, lean protein, whole grains, etc.) and limiting hyper-processed foods full of added fats and sugars can do a mind and body good. Sure, the occasional “bad” food is fine, just don’t make it the norm.
Supplements to Consider When Dealing with Feelings of Stress or Anxiety
KSM-66 is a premier form of ashwagandha extract standardized to 5% withanolides.
Ashwagandha is a plant whose use in traditional medicine dates back thousands of years. Modern research notes that supplementing with KSM-66 may help reduce stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels as well as stress-related food cravings. 
Ashwagandha is part of a family of botanicals known as adaptogens.
Adaptogens improve the body’s ability to perceive, interact, and recover from stress.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid notably found in fatty, cold water fish like salmon.
Research has shown that they may be helpful in the treatment for depression, particularly in those who are deficient in omega-3s, which is a considerable portion of the population. 
Chamomile is an herb typically brewed as a tea used widely for its calming effects. Research notes that chamomile may help provide relief from depressive symptoms , but more studies are needed for confirmation.
St. John’s Wort
Also known as Hypericum perforatum, St. John’s Wort is a plant that has been used as an herbal remedy for mental health issues for centuries.
A systematic review of the literature from 2016 noted that St. John’s wort was approximately as effective as common antidepressant medications. 
It should be noted that the authors of the study advised caution as St. John’s wort has been documented to produce adverse effects.
Furthermore, St John’s wort can also interfere with the effects of common antidepressants.
Lavender oil is commonly used by individuals to reduce anxiety. Research from 2013 indicates that supplementing with lavender may help alleviate anxiety as well as improve sleep. 
It’s worth noting that the research is far from conclusive regarding its potential to treat anxiety and/or depression as some studies yield mixed results.
Short for S-adenosylmethionine, SAM-e is a compound produced in the liver that assists with methylation.
Studies to date show that SAM-e trends toward being effective for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Over 40 studies have been conducted in depressed individuals, with most noting positive effects from supplementing with SAM-e.
However, the majority of studies last for only a few weeks.
Interestingly, it was found to have about the same effectiveness as common prescription antidepressants, such as imipramine or escitalopram. 
Staying physically active is paramount to combating and preventing depression. In fact, research even shows that people who adopt these tactics are 25% more likely to stick to the fitness plans than those who don’t. 
Use the tips outlined above to help integrate exercise into your daily routine for a happy, healthier life, both mentally and physically.
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