I am currently reading a very interesting book titled ‘The Real Happy Pill’, written by the medical doctor Anders Hansen. In the book Hansen shows what research reveals about the effect of regular physical activity and exercise.
And that effect is huge! We have long known that exercise and working out help with diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. We know that physical activity prevents many other illnesses, and that it replenishes us with energy. Exercise and working out lead to more willpower, better sleep, and confidence.
In addition to that, exercise and exercise are highly effective against anxiety and depression! Recent research shows that the effect of regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise (running, cycling, swimming etc.) for 30 minutes three times a week, is at least as effective against depression as antidepressants. Note that as I write this, it is by no means an attack against antidepressants, which helps many. But I think it is grossly under-communicated how good exercise is for those who suffer from anxiety or depression. When was the last time your doctor urged you to be more physically active?
I think many people who suffer from depression or anxiety have thought that they must exercise more, but struggle to get started, and that this leads to a guilty conscience. How can we solve this dilemma and increase the level of activity?
By starting with extremely low ambitions!
I have written about this principle in the past, including the post on self-confidence and this post on how to change habits, and this is one of my most important messages. Failure to do things will often aggravate depression, so in order to turn the negative spiral into a positive one, we must make sure that the goal we set for ourselves is so easy to achieve that we succeed every time.
Actually, I believe there is no such thing as a too low level of ambition when you are starting a new positive habit like frequent exercise. If you really start from an inactive state, start by walking five minutes a day. If it is too demanding, set yourself a goal to walk five extra steps per day! Find that level of extra physical activity that is completely achievable for you, something you can do every day, even if it rains or snow, even if you do not feel well.
If you manage more it is of course very good, but do not set a very high level of expectations in the beginning. A five minute walk every day is a great starting point. Research tells us that even a 20—minute walk per week can protect you against anxiety and depression.
There are many ways to be physically active. As you probably know by now, I am very fond of walking, partly because it takes me outdoors where I am exposed to daylight, which in itself is very positive for someone who is depressed. I would also recommend you spend time in nature, if you can, because nature makes you happier.
Another clever principle is to do something you think is fun. Practice a sport you enjoy and do it with others if you can. Having a weekly squash appointment makes it easier to actually meet up for training sessions.
You can start with this today already. Stand up from the chair you are in right now and take five steps. You can plan to do something physically in the morning, like going for a brisk walk. Find something you can do every day from today onwards and keep the level of ambition so low that you will keep doing it every day. And if it so happens that you miss one day, it is not the end of the world. Then you just do it tomorrow!