When Shirley Archer was in her late 20s, she seemed to have it all: a high-powered position as a lawyer on Wall Street, a good education and financial security. But with that fast-paced life came intense stress, which led to a year-long struggle with depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.
“I hadn’t connected the dots between my health and my lifestyle,” she says. “I had burned out and struggled to complete everyday tasks.”
Archer had what she calls a “transformation through self-care,” which began by developing an awareness of how she treated her body. Starting with 10-minute walks, she gradually progressed to more vigorous exercises and developed a new outlook on life. She left her law career and became a certified wellness coach and educator, finding motivation in helping others overcome similar obstacles.
“I realized only I could create my own health. It’s not a flaw in character; it’s that people don’t know the steps they need to take to get better,” she says.
The struggle Archer faced is a common one in our 24/7 world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that over 9 percent of Americans report being depressed. Common treatments include medication and therapy, but new research such as a 2011 study in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine support what individuals like Archer believe: that the power of exercise can be an efficient complement to traditional interventions for depression and anxiety.
“There is very strong research supporting the benefit of physical activity in preventing and alleviating the symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says Kate Hays, a clinical psychologist and author of multiple books on exercise and mental health, including “Move Your Body: Tone Your Mood.”
She incorporates exercise into her private practice, the Performing Edge Toronto, and considers it a critical component of the treatment process. Exactly how one affects the other is less easy to determine.
Hays says that the term “endorphins” has become the popular go-to word, but that may be a misnomer. “Science is still working on it,” she explains. “It’s very difficult to measure brains chemicals while someone is being physically active.”
But she is sure of the results, indicating that exercise provides psychological, physiological and social benefits, especially to those who struggle with depression and anxiety: “You get a sense of accomplishment, some biochemical reaction and a social connection, which could mean either the opportunity to work with other people or a sense of accomplishing something for yourself.”
Dr. William Roberts, a physician at the University of Minnesota’s Phalen Village Clinic and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, considers exercise “underutilized in medicine for all kinds of prevention.” He integrates it into his treatment of both everyday patients and athletes. For individuals with severe depression, Roberts considers exercise a “good augmentation” to a combination of therapy and medication.
Both Hays and Roberts recognize that individuals who struggle with depression or anxiety may find the task of exercise overwhelming. Hays suggests starting small, such as Archer’s initial goal of daily 10-minute walks: “People often set goals that are much too big. Start with a small change and work on gradually increasing that.”
Roberts uses the “five-minute rule” with his patients. “I ask them if they can give me just five minutes of movement a day, and then they can add a minute each subsequent day.”
Hays also suggests writing down how you’re feeling through a rating system. Before each activity, rate your current mental state from 1 to 10 _ 1 being very depressed or anxious, 10 being feeling great or very calm. Then use the same scale to rate yourself after the exercise.
Hays says results depend on the person. Some will see instant results while others will experience a gradual mood elevation. Having a written record helps you track your progress.
The key is consistency. “Expect that you will get sidetracked at some point, whether it’s getting sick, going on vacation or getting bored. You have to anticipate these factors and redefine your goals,” she says.
We also have to reframe how we view exercise.
“A lot of people reflect back to high school gym class and running the mile, which gives exercise a bad name,” says Roberts. Consider all activities that get your body moving _ whether that’s the traditional exercises of walking and running or something like sledding or ice skating.
“People need to find forms of exercise that they find interesting,” says Hays. “Because it’s not only important that they start exercising _ they also need to continue it to see mental health benefits.”