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Exercise and Other Natural Ways to Fight Depression

Learn how exercise helps relieve depression plus 5 natural ways to fight your depression.

Exercise PLUS 5 natural ways to fight your depression.

In mid-August in Lowell, Massachusetts, orange marigolds pop up from postage-stamp yards, many of which are protected by stone Madonnas. I know this because 22 years ago, as my twin sister lay dying in a hospital not far away, I ran on those sidewalks, my feet pounding into the grief I felt was everywhere. My husband ran beside me, and together we watched Lowell wake up, passing pajamaed boys sitting on porch steps licking the jelly off their toast.

On August 13, 1981, my sister, Deane, a psychologist, was shot in the head by one of her patients, a paranoid schizophrenic who apparently feared what she—and the other doctor he killed outright—could reveal. That day Deane had planned to board a plane to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a ten-day visit with me. Instead, she would spend those days unconscious, her brain no longer active, her heart readying itself to stop.

The first morning after our arrival in Lowell, my husband Dan and I returned with my parents and brother to the hospital,journeying into what we had learned the night before was to be a vigil over my sister's death. We were told simply, "She will not live," a sentence that became etched on my parents' cracked faces, a sentence the doctor would repeat more graphically later and for which we would hate him. What we gleaned from him was plain: Deane had only a few days left to live.

We sat for hours in a room the nurses had set aside for us. There we met Deane's friends and took phone calls and read the cards that came with flowers. When we left at night, we went to dinner—sort of—and slept, or tried to, in our motel rooms.

For terror was doing a number on me, leaving me sleepless and without appetite. At times, I wondered who had died: Deane or me. On earth we had shared souls, and now I could only wonder if I were soulless, my heart floating with her's in some universe I couldn't see. I grieved for her severed life and my long one without her.


 

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Running to Cope with Panic and Sadness

But, every day, I would swing my legs out of bed and lace up my running shoes. It wasn't clear to me at the time, but now it seems as if running was my weapon to outstrip the terror. Running let me slap that energy to the ground, releasing me for a time from panic and horror. I remember pushing myself to the limit, lungs bursting, as if ahead were a person I was trying to catch and subdue. I felt each thud on the earth offer me power.

I didn't understand how it worked, but somehow after my run each day, as I headed with my family to see Deane, I felt for an hour or so that perhaps I could do this, perhaps I could ease my sister into another world.

My sister's death, however, was not my first experience with overwhelming sadness—or with exercise as an antidote. As far back as my late teens, I had suffered from the more generic depression that winds through my family—from my alcoholic grandfather to my mother, who began drinking after my sister's death. Then, as now, I seized on exercise to ward off not only immediate despair but the knowledge that my genes could get me, too.

On bleak New York days, I ran in circles around the Barnard College indoor track. Later, as a college teacher with stage fright, I used running to blow the acid off a day with smart-aleck students, diminish the sense of failure I felt, or simply relieve the pressure of the next day's preparations.

I can still picture the Tennessee creeks and the staring cows I passed on those therapeutic runs. I learned over time that that's when I could solve problems and shed the day's harness. I was free of cares, and when I got back home, somehow the worries I'd left the house with had become, if not puny, at least manageable.

Learn how exercise helps relieve depression plus 5 natural ways to fight your depression.Exercise Relieves Stress and Depression

It turns out such resilience isn't just happenstance. Researchers have known for years that exercise relieves stress—and increasingly they've discovered it can relieve depression as well. In fact, some experts think it may be as effective as drugs, minus their side effects. "Exercise has some benefits that medications don't," says psychologist Andrea L. Dunn, vice president for behavioral science research at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas. "It strengthens the heart and lungs. And it helps regulate appetite and sleep, both of which can be a problem for people who are depressed."

James Gordon, founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., has been treating depression with exercise and other nondrug approaches for 30 years—with great success. "I used to run a ward in a mental hospital, and the patients would sit around smoking, in a terrible mood," he says. "But when I got people playing touch football and basketball, their moods improved. It was just common sense to me. Human beings are meant to move. It gives people a sense of control, releases anxiety, and creates discipline."

That's particularly important for people who suffer from the kind of depression that isn't associated with grief or some actual event. Poor sense of self, irrational guilt and remorse: These are the core symptoms of depression, says Michael Babyak, assistant clinical professor of behavioral psychiatry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Battling them is like boxing at shadows. "Depressed people have trouble giving themselves credit for anything," says Babyak. "But following an exercise program produces a sense of mastery and achievement."

Last Updated: 11 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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