For my depression, fitness has done wonders. Discovering something that naturally boosts your mood might be more possible than you’d think.
My psychiatrist prescribed me two antidepressants: Wellbutrin and Lexapro. They’re great. I owe those little pills a lot. And I’m no doctor, but I’ve prescribed myself a third medication. It really brings me out of a funk and can completely turn my day around. Maybe you’ve heard of it before? It’s called Fitness. I take it daily.
I wasn’t always into fitness. Back in 2019, I was struggling with getting out of a depressive episode. I was not on medication at that time, and my therapist suggested taking a fitness class to lift my mood. I chose kickboxing. An hour of hitting things? Sounded fun. I planned on picturing my ex on the punching bag.
I eventually dragged myself to the studio, internally cursing my therapist for suggesting that I exercise and cursing myself for agreeing to it. It was a brutal 45 minutes. I could have filled a water bottle with my sweat. I wanted to crawl out of the building. Muscles, many I didn’t even realize existed, were shaking.
But it was incredible. I hadn’t realized just how much emotion I had been keeping bottled up. Anger has always been difficult for me to express (I’m a woman from Michigan, OK, nice runs in my veins), but as soon as I stepped onto that mat and put on some gloves, it was as though all of that anger — at my ex, my friends, my world, my depression — finally had someplace to go.
When the pandemic started and my kickboxing classes were suspended, I found myself, like many, growing restless. I needed an outlet. I turned to fitness — primarily cardio — doing virtual classes on the Peloton app. I then graduated to lifting weights and strength training. I began exercising 5 days a week with 2 active recovery days.
Working out is time that is exclusively dedicated to me. When I am working out — lifting weights, cycling, doing burpees — my mind is quiet. My worries are gone. Depression, in that hour, doesn’t seem to exist. I am focusing only on what I’m doing — counting reps, my form — and encouraging myself to continue.
I once made a joke to my sister that working out was a spiritual experience. Later, as I lay in Savasana in a yoga class, I realized that it actually wasn’t a joke. It’s when I exercise that my mind is most clear, and I feel most at peace.
Last year, I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode. Everyone knew it was bad. But it was only when I stopped working out that my loved ones really started to understand just how bad things were. The thing I loved most, that brought me the most peace and clarity, was suddenly not working. I did not have peace. I did not have clarity. Fitness, which had been a buoy for me for nearly 3 years, was no longer afloat. I was sinking rapidly.
With the help of professionals, I was able to find an effective cocktail of antidepressants. My medication slowly helped me find the strength to find my way back into exercising. I started small: going on walks, kitchen dance parties, 5-minute core classes. Within 4 months, I was back to my routine.
A year out, I can happily say that I am healthy and functioning, back to exercising daily. I’ve found ways to keep my body on its toes and to challenge my mind. Currently, I’m on a rowing kick, which I’ve found to be strangely meditative. The motion of the sport is rhythmic and soothing. It has calmed my mind deeply.
Fitness is not for everyone, and I — in no way — mean to suggest that it will change someone’s life in the same way that it changed mine. But for me, in fitness, I have found a nonpharmaceutical medication that has completely transformed my understanding of myself and my mental health. It has brought me discipline and routine. It has unlocked endorphins. It has given me an understanding of myself and a recognition of my capabilities.
I can’t be certain why it is that fitness works so well for me. Perhaps it’s the routine of it, which keeps something on my calendar each day. Perhaps it’s because I am always working towards something, be it a lower split time in my rowing class or an extra push-up in my strength workout. Perhaps it’s that I’m chasing a high of endorphins.
Whatever it is, it’s been strangely comforting to know that fitness aids my mental health so deeply. In a way, it’s given me more control over my mental health. It is not only pills that are keeping me healthy. It is me and my decision to move my body that keeps my depression and anxiety at bay.
A friend of mine once shared with me that her brother had deeply struggled with anxiety. He had found his medication in faith — surrendering himself and his problems to a higher power. It reminded me of my relationship with fitness and the spiritual connection I’ve found there.
There are, surely, countless things in this world — many beyond pharmaceutical drugs — that offer us that peace and clarity that we all so deeply crave. They are our own medications, self-prescribed.
For my sister, it’s spending time with her puppy at the dog park. For my roommate, it’s walking around Brooklyn while listening to music. A friend of mine finds it in traveling to new places. My hometown best friend likes to take a bath and read a good book — preferably with her cats on the bathmat beside her. Beyond fitness, I find a quasi-sort of treatment in writing, listening to music, or perusing bookstores with an oat milk latte in hand.
A push-up, a dog, or a hike in nature. Whatever these nonpharmaceutical medications are — as they are surely different for everyone — I find that they all have one thing in common. They somehow connect us to our most inner selves, bringing us back to our bodies and slowing down our racing thoughts. Little rays of light that shine through the blinds of depression, illuminating the shaded windows of our minds.
Medically reviewed on February 26, 2023
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