Demystifying Depression/Caveats of Treating Depression with Exercise
Caveats of Treating Depression with Exercise
Looking back on Figure 2 from The Stress System, some people might suggest that a person with a severe depression could avoid the crashing down simply by exercising every single day. In a sense, as soon as your body begins to crash, you simply do more exercise to rev it up again. You could therefore reap the positive temporary effects of exercise, and hopefully avoid the negative side. This routine "sort of" works, but is also extremely dangerous, as I will proceed to explain.
The major problem is that having too many stress hormones flowing through veins has a negative effect on sleep. And sleep is crucial for recovery. So people with more severe depressions who exercise every day will not sleep as much as they should, and the recovery will therefore take longer (see next section for a real world example). More seriously, if the amount of exercise is too high, they might even regress. Even more seriously, if the underlying depression worsens, people might be tempted to increase the amount of exercise to compensate, which will quickly lead them into a very dangerous downwards spiral. In a sense, advising a seriously depressed person to exercise is like telling a drunken individual that the best way to avoid a hangover is to keep drinking; or advising a heroin addict that the best way to avoid the withdrawal symptoms is to keep injecting the drug.
This is unfortunately not widely known, but even healthy individuals who exercise too much can develop the symptoms of a depression. This is sometimes referred to as the athletic overtraining syndrome , and by now you should have understood the basic mechanism of why it arises.