Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ramblings: An Exercise in Futility

Have you seen the article on the BBC website about the latest research into exercise and depression?
For me it feels like a liberating thing. I’ve always hated exercise and never been keen to undertake it and episodes of depression have lead me into hideous battles with myself to be active. Now, I can be free from the dreaded self imposed exercise regime.

I always hated sport. We weren’t a sporting family. Reading was more our thing. My father would watch the occasional cricket match but that isn’t really a sport; its men standing around in a field. Any game where they wear jumpers is surely not a real sport? I always admired darts players. They could drink and smoke, brandish huge bellies and be called sportsmen. Nice work if you can get it.

Hours of torture in school physical education lessons reinforced my distaste for all thing sporting. As a child, sport equated stupidity to me (I now see I was wrong about this. It’s not true that all sports players are stupid, just a fair proportion). The sports teacher was one of the most asinine people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. I judged sporting people by his example. Hours of being shouted at, insulted and called homophobic names by him made me realise that it definitely wasn’t for me. I was quite good at running (probably a good thing, given that it was a British comprehensive school in the 1980s and I was a very effeminate boy). I was urged by the teachers to represent the school at running but was revolted by the idea. I had a television and a shelf full of unread Agatha Christie’s. Why would I forsake that joy to sweat and pant and end up all achy and sore? They were less than pleased and very mystified by my lack of competitive interest.

I once decided to join a gym. I’d given up smoking, hit 30 and gained a little paunch. I went to the gym. I looked round the gym. I didn’t join the gym. I ate a bit less and the weight went.

When I became hideously depressed I tried everything I could. I read everything I could about it, sought therapy, took the pills and ate the foods I was told would help. I remained horribly depressed. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I needed to try to exercise too. I thought about it for a good while.

It was a supreme effort. I’d drag myself out of bed and spend hours trying to force myself into the shower. Eventually I’d force myself out of the house and go for long walks. I’d walk for several hours each day in all weathers, hating every minute of it. I saw no joy in any scenery I passed. I didn’t like the music on my I-pod and was fearful and apprehensive of everyone I saw. Such is the nature of depression. It robs you of all ability to experience pleasure. It didn’t help at all. I just felt more defeated. I walked every day for weeks, months and still got no better. I felt even more of a disaster at life.

Of course, I eventually did get better after several months of taking pills, seeing therapists and being off work. Who’s to say that the walking didn’t help a little? It’s hard to unpick if it did or didn’t. I know that I was malnourished and rapidly losing weight, sweating a lot from the pills and was utterly exhausted. Not a good starting point for a long walk. It never felt especially good.

I do know though, that activity helps me a little when I’m depressed, although it’s hard to do. A simple walk to the shop can distract me a tiny bit and help minimally. A minor household task can make me feel a miniscule sense of normality and achievement. Maybe exercise helps in that way. For me, depression tells me that I can’t do anything and it’s a major struggle to counteract those defective instincts and be active. It’s usually worth it if I do though. Sometimes it only helps the tiniest bit which is barely noticeable but it does always seem to help a little. When I’m really bad I can do nothing at all. It’s like I’m weighted down.

For me, this new research tells me nothing new. I already knew exercise is never going to make me happy. Endorphins don’t seem to figure in my make-up. At least I have a damn good excuse now, though, when my inner bully tells me to get up and walk and lighten my mood. I can present it with a piece of research and tell it to do one.

The main point I’d make, is if you think exercise helps then do it. If it doesn’t seem to then don’t. Simple. For me its vive le sofa! Have you seen the facial expressions on some of those joggers? No thanks.

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