It's Official: Exercise Does Not Make You Less Depressed

By Al Burian

Painting by Al Burian.

A recent scientific study claims to prove conclusively what I have suspected all along: that exercise is not effective in treating depression. Researchers in Bristol and Exeter, UK, studying a test group of 18- to 69-year-olds over a four-month period of time, found that “physical activity... did not improve depression outcome or reduce use of antidepressants” in their subjects. I got a bit less depressed just from hearing this news. It feels nice to be vindicated. The “get more exercise” mantra was always my pet peeve when consulting psychiatric professionals. Exercise? Really? You went to medical school and got a specialized degree so that you could give me the same advice a high school cheerleader would? The next piece of psychiatric advice I’d get was invariably even worse: a recommendation to give up alcohol, and instead begin taking ominously named medications whose possible side-effects include: dizziness, sexual dysfunction and an increase in suicidal thoughts. Why would I sacrifice the time-tested nectar of slothful complacency in exchange for some experimental pharmaceutical that might cause me to kill myself?

Exercise and anti-depressants: The average mental health professional in the United States will spend a good ten minutes in conversation with you before prescribing this winning combo. A few years ago, in an attempt to compromise, I agreed to try the exercise. I got a membership at a local gym called Carolina Fitness. Loping along on the treadmill one evening, I looked around the room and surveyed my fellow athletes: slabs of muscular masculinity, grunting with self-confidence. I began to have a panic attack. What had gone wrong in my life that I had wound up in a room full of people like this? After successfully avoiding them since elementary school, now doctors were prescribing that I act more like them? At that moment, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” began to play over the public address system. This caused me to break out in tears. I grabbed my towel, and hurried to a nearby bar to calm myself down.

“There is something to be said here about the word depression, which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life,” writes Theodore Dalrymple, a retired doctor, in his essay "The Frivolity of Evil." “Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means.” In fact, such a large portion of the population now classifies themselves as depressed that it is hard to say whether it can be called an illness, or even an aberration. “Depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all,” claim Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson Jr. in an article for Scientific American. “Depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits.”

The pro-depression argument centers around ruminative thinking, a form of obsessive fixation on re-hashing and dissecting a situation. This is a highly lucid and analytical mode of thought. Depressed people have better short-term memory and are able to more accurately predict outcomes. Another common symptom in depressive people is anhedonia, a loss of interest in typically pleasurable activities like sex or eating. In pre-historic times, it is easy to imagine how these states of mind would have been advantageous: If the trap you made to catch an animal didn’t work and you were faced with starving to death, it probably made sense to shut out all extraneous distractions, go into obsessive-compulsive mode, and focus your full problem-solving capacity on improving your rabbit trap.

Fast forward a hundred thousand years though, and you find that our Paleolithic brains have not evolved as quickly as our social conditions. Many people who are stuck in unhappy life situations—a boring job, a bad relationship, an oppressive economic or political system—might intellectually accept their circumstances, and yet be unable to shut off their neural hard-wiring, the primal alarm telling them that this is a fight-or-flight situation. Their minds get stuck, obsessively scrolling through the options for escape from the trap called modern existence. Results: somewhere between a third to a half of the population of the US and Europe claims to have had problems with depression.

A lot of people I know swear by exercise. Cardiovascular activity causes the body to produce endorphins, which give you the fleeting illusory feeling that everything is great (what drug users call a “high”). Explaining the human relationship to alcohol is a bit more complicated, because alcohol is a barbiturate, a downer, so it doesn’t seem like the type of thing you’d want to ingest when depressed. Nevertheless, the history of drinking and moping in the corner is a storied one. Here in Germany, where the use of psycho-pharmaceuticals is not nearly as widespread as in the US, the society makes up for it with generous welfare checks that can be spent on cheap beers. In a land that offers its citizens free education, job re-training, and social security, vast numbers of people choose another option, as if they have perused the fine print of the social contract and said, "Hmm, no thanks, how about if I just stay drunk until I die instead?" In some ways I admire the fortitude of the terminal alcoholics I see around my neighborhood. These people have made a true commitment to their form of self-annihilation. They have an inner drive that makes the passions of the joggers and Pilates people seem tepid and vainglorious by comparison.  

I don’t have the stamina for self-destruction, so I’ve decided to give exercise another chance. After procuring a pair of running shoes I have begun going to a nearby track, where I jog in circles on the sort of rubbery turf they pad pre-school playgrounds with, huffing and panting my way around the circumference alongside my fellow red-faced, sweat-pants wearing citizens. It has become a pleasant ritual. It’s pretty fun to exercise, actually, when authority figures aren’t forcing you to do it. Here’s the trick: you have to start exercising before you get depressed. When I was in a full-blown state of mania it was already too late, the advice was useless. But in a normal state of mind, the small endorphin rush helps to keep me balanced, and away from the stronger medications.