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The one thing most of us forget to do when we want to feel better

Woman Running
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New study confirms that exercise increases mood, productivity and social interaction.

After my first daughter was born, I was blindsided by postpartum depression. My doctor recommended three things: medication, therapy, and exercise.

The first two were easy — take a pill, go talk for an hour, no problem. And although the combination of meds and therapy helped me get through the first few months, they didn’t actually lift the black cloud from my shoulders. They just kept it at bay for a while.

I didn’t consider exercise as a serious possibility for a good six months. I was already exhausted constantly, both from lack of sleep and depression. I couldn’t muster up the energy to take a walk, much less go for a run. But my doctor (and husband) kept pressing me to try it, until I finally ran out of energy to even object. So I dug my tennis shoes out of the closet and dragged myself to the closest jogging trails.

That first run was 99 percent walk, 1 percent run. Everything ached from months of neglect, and I was gasping before I made it a quarter-mile. But I didn’t want to give up. It felt good to sweat and good to feel my heart pounding. Best of all, trying to keep my feet moving required so much concentration that I forgot my despair, for a brief and blissful moment.

When I came back home, I smiled at my husband for the first time in months. I showered and fixed my hair, picked up the apartment, and made an actual dinner. I wasn’t cured or anything — that would take another few months and a lot more exercise. But that first run reminded me that I used to feel alive, and made me want to find my way back.

Doctors have been encouraging depressed patients to exercise for years, and a recent study has confirmed that exercise causes a cascade of positive effects.

“When we become depressed or whatever it is we’re going through, we say to ourselves that we’ll get out when we feel better,” says Kevin Young, the study’s lead author, who is completing his doctorate in clinical psychology at George Mason University. “Unfortunately, what we also see is that we do not feel better until we get out.”

The study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, monitored a month’s exercise habits of 179 college students from Northern Virginia and assessed the effect that exercise had on social activity and achievement.

The researchers found that exercise on any given day increased a student’s social and achievement activities on that same day, and predicted positive social interaction the next day. However, positive social and achievement activities on one day did not increase or predict exercise. So people can’t afford to wait until they feel better to start exercising, because it doesn’t work that way. Exercise inspires happiness and productivity — not the other way around.

I learned that lesson the hard way, but it’s now so ingrained in my psyche that my first instinct when I feel depression creeping up is to get moving. Running isn’t always possible, especially with lots of littles — but chasing them through the house gets my blood flowing, too. So do dance parties, swinging on monkey bars, and climbing through play structures at the park. Anything that gets me going physically gets me going emotionally and intellectually, too.

I’m glad to see more studies confirming the primacy of exercise in maintaining mental and emotional health, rather focusing only on the physical benefits. After all, it’s all connected — what effects our bodies effects the rest of us, too. So what are you waiting for? Get moving!

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