As we move into the winter months and out of a nearly two-year long world pandemic with clear short-term mental health effects, the word “depression” may come up a lot. Depression is the “common cold” of psychological disorders. The World Health Organization considers depression a high priority concern and most everyone has been depressed or knows someone who has been depressed at some time in life. While there may be different causes, triggers, and etiology of the experience of depressive symptoms, we as fitness professionals have one powerful tool at our disposal to help our clients and loved ones: exercise. The link between exercise alleviating depression has been clearly demonstrated; here’s how personal trainers can play a role.

Signs of Depression

Symptoms of depression include sleep disturbances, loss of appetite or overeating, and anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure). While it comes in different forms and intensities, some of its characteristics are enduring.

Depressed people think in different ways from their non-depressed counterparts.  Their neuro-chemistry is different. They may have low self-esteem. They are most likely inactive much of the time.

Depression is often treated with drugs that activate neuronal communication, usually by inhibiting reuptake of key neurotransmitters like serotonin. Mood is elevated as a result of these changes in the nervous system.

Psychotherapy is also used as a treatment, sometimes in combination with medication. One effective form of psychotherapy is cognitive-behavior therapy in which the patient is prompted to change their thoughts and then, how they respond to their thoughts.

For example, one might observe and recognize the faulty thought of, “My life is so much harder than everyone else’s”, they are taught reframe it and instead think, “Life can be hard for everyone, and I can’t know everyone’s journey. I have challenges I’m facing but I have the strength to face them.”

The behavior hallmark of depression is inactivity. Depressed people are tired, lethargic, and unmotivated. In severe cases, they have difficulty getting up, starting the day, and doing the essential activities life requires.

Good personal trainers are aware that their depressed clients are reaping benefits at the health club beyond improved levels of general health and physical fitness. Exercise has a direct and positive effect on an individual suffering from depression.

How Exercise Can Improve Depression

1. Exercise is active. Since the behavioral hallmark of depression is inactivity, it is difficult to be both exercising and depressed. Exercise can help clients beat a bad mood and spiral into a more positive space, or if nothing else, be a distraction from negative thoughts and feelings.

2. Exercise increases self-esteem. Performing new movements and exercising makes a person feel good about themselves.  There may be a sense of accomplishment from simply start and then maintaining, and if any visible or physical measures improve, that can certainly provide a boost in self-esteem.

3. Improved sleeping and eating patterns are often associated with movement. Exercise can help us sleep more soundly, and it can improve the functioning of our digestive systems, thus reversing a side effect of depression.

4. Positive neurochemical changes can be triggered. Research shows that exercise changes our physiology, including the neurochemical activity of the brain and nervous system. It stimulates the release of the brain’s natural opiates, the endorphins, thereby making us happier.

5. Exercise can be fun! Once a regular routine is established (arguably the hardest part), people usually look forward to their workouts. The joy that comes from moving and stretching and “pumping iron” combats anhedonia. Life becomes pleasurable again!

6. Social support and fitness. It is difficult to become “regular” at most health clubs without making friends. Social support is one of the most effective ways to help individuals stay healthy and combat disease. Depressed individuals can benefit tremendously from social interaction at the gym, in group exercise classes, or even from web-based competitive groups like those found on the Peloton platform.

7. Cognitive changes ensue. While establishing exercise routines, the mind leans into stability. Stability in the routine can decrease instability in the way we think and feel. When interacting with a trainer, workout partner, or club member, there is a real opportunity to get out of our own inner dialogue and change the way we think by virtue of simply listening to the thoughts of others. Positive reinforcement from others can also pave the way to self-worth and new thinking.  “Way to go!”  “Good job!”  These comments from others can become part of our inner dialogue. It is difficult to be depressed when we are saying positive things in our own heads.

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