Beating the blues with exercise
Getting up while it's still dark is never easy. Getting up while it's still dark to go out and exert yourself is verging on the preposterous. Yet doing just that could be exactly what you need to keep your spirits up as the year draws to a close.
With Thanksgiving, Christmas and a new year looming, and loved ones seeming suddenly very far away, it's easy to feel a little low at this time of year. What you need is a good, old-fashioned boost, and research published this month suggests that exercise (perhaps the opposite of what you feel like asking your sluggish body to do) is the first thing you should be turning to.
It has long been thought that physical activity can improve your mental state; most people find that a good, brisk walk can do wonders for their mood, and previous scientific research has shown that exercise produces mood-enhancing endorphins.
Now a study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London has gone further, confirming not only the connection between exercise and mental health but, additionally, providing pointers towards what kind of exercise will be most helpful in staving off depression.
Their research, based on a study of 40,401 Norwegian residents and published this month in the British Journal of Psychiatry, revealed that those who took regular exercise were less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression than those who did not. Most fascinating of all, it showed that the beneficial effects were not dependent on the intensity of the exercise and, further, were only experienced when the activity took place in leisure time as opposed to workplace activity.
So how do these findings affect you if you want to ensure that your exercise keeps the blues at bay? Most importantly, the physical activity should be part of your leisure time. If you do lots of walking and lifting as part of your job, this is unlikely to help with your mental state, so you'll need to make sure that you're getting some exercise outside of work.
Why this should be so is not clear, but the researchers concluded that the social support and contact often associated with sport could be a factor.
This is no surprise to former expat Hannah, who has suffered from severe depression over the years. She finds that regular swimming has a profound effect on her mental state.
"I would go so far as saying I am dependent on swimming to keep me afloat mentally," she says. "It keeps the regular, low-level depression at bay and I feel it delays the attack of a dark episode".
Hannah always swims with friends. "The social element is definitely a bonus and gives an extra boost to my mood", she notes. "I think because depression is so lonely and isolating, combining exercise with socialising is perfect. Chatting about your day or someone else's day is good; it brings more positive (or at least neutral) thoughts to your mind".
The regular commitment helps Hannah, too. "It stops me from dropping out or talking myself out of going. I don't want to be the one who lets the group down".
If group activities are not for you, though, exercising solo can still have a positive effect on your mental state. According to the researchers, sheer enjoyment may account for some of the benefits attributed to leisure-time workouts.
"You feel that energised, strong, capable feeling", says Karen, 31. She developed what she describes as a depressive streak during her teens, but keeps it under control with regular jogging. Like many others, Karen prefers to run alone.
"I have always liked the solitary aspects of running. That time out, listening to music on my iPod, somehow focuses the mind and takes it off worries, plus it gives me a big shot of endorphins".
Karen did try jogging in a group, but did not find it helpful.
"I found the social aspect of group jogging took all the pleasure away from it; it was more like an aerobics class and I didn't enjoy the competitive aspect."
For Lucy Jolin, the author of Coping with Birth Trauma and Postnatal Depression, what started as a solo activity has since become a family one.
"I started cycling in 2001 and became obsessed with it. I'd cycle through floods, storms, snow - everything. But when I got pregnant with my first child in 2005 I stopped because I was worried about the safety implications. I really missed it."
Lucy suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of her first child. When her second baby came along, she was determined to start cycling again as soon as she could to see if it would help her deal with the aftermath of the birth. It did.
"I was amazed at the effect," says Lucy. "I got back home after that first ride for over five years just feeling incredible. Being out there in the fresh air, zooming down hills, seeing all those little details that you miss in the car - it was fantastic. All the stresses and strains of being a parent to two small children just didn't seem to matter when I was on the bike."
What if, however, the idea of physical exertion seems daunting, or is prohibited by your health or lifestyle? The good news from the research is that even the gentlest forms of leisure-time exercise can help to combat depression. The subjects of the study whose activity was classed as light were no more likely to suffer from depression than their more energetic counterparts.
Even the infirm and wheelchair-bound can benefit from some exercise. Sue Weston teaches the Chinese art of Qigong, which involves gentle, flowing movements, to groups of people suffering from mental health disorders and to the elderly.
"The thing about Qigong is that it's so accessible. You can do it sitting down and I even have wheelchair users doing the class".
Weston finds that this quiet form of exercise brings rapid mental health benefits and her students often report improved moods and better sleep; another overcame a long-term fear of flying.
"Our bodies are made for moving", says Weston, "but often we don't move any more. The movement connects us with our breath, and our breath affects our mental activity. Movement is life."
So the next time you're setting the alarm for an early morning workout, remember this. Even if you don't wake up with a smile on your face, you'll have one by the end of your session. That has to be worth getting up for.