Endorphins: a ramble about exercise and depression

Photo: soybean field along the Blue Mound bike trail, on the north edge of Luverne.

Earlier this week, I bumped into this article from the Atlantic Monthly, circa 2014, one of those random reposts that pop up in one’s Twitter feed. Now, I’m sort of a skeptic about articles like this, and not at all in agreement with the crusty old Midwestern-work-ethic philosophy that says that people who think they’re depressed should just buck up and deal with it. “Ah, just go for a run, quit yer whining, and think of all the people who don’t have it as good as you do! That’ll cure ‘ya!”

…Until it doesn’t. When you can’t muster the mental impetus to get yourself out of bed, much less into running shoes and out the door, the idea of exercise seems about as simple as quantum physics. You don’t know this until you’ve been there, unfortunately, and it’s not the sort of thing that’s really fun or easy to explain to those who (fortunately for them) haven’t been there. Here’s an attempt to explain it: try telling someone with a 102 degree fever and a bad case of the flu to just get over it. Or tell someone who just broke their leg to walk it off. That comes close to how it sounds when you’re in a severe bout of depression and someone tells you to just “get over yourself and pray more.” Will exercise help? Sure. Will prayer help? Absolutely! But sometimes you need help just getting to the point where exercise and prayer even become a realistic expectation. Even God gave Elijah a break when he collapsed in despair, having been forced to run for his life after God had showed up the priests of Baal.

I’m not in that kind of state lately, but I’d kind of let my own exercise/activity habits slip in the last few months. I’d forgotten that it’s part of my plan to stay healthy, both mentally and physically, until my doctor pretty much literally prescribed 30 minutes of exercise, six days a week to get someone I know back to health again. So, I’ve taken a clue from that, and given it a decent attempt myself this week. Tuesday and Thursday, I spent some time on the treadmill at the fitness center. Friday, I remembered that I’d bothered to get my bike fixed this summer and just let it sit in the garage ever since, so Elanor and I went on a (short) bike ride around town. This afternoon, I went out on the Blue Mound bike trail to see how far I could get without exhausting myself entirely. I made it about 2 miles from home (up to just north of the hospital), and survived the 2 miles back. …Yes, I know I’m out of shape. But today’s ride seemed easier than yesterday’s, so maybe there’s a little improvement. And I do feel better. Slept pretty well last night, and I’m breathing better today. So, maybe there’s something to this whole endorphin thing. It seems to be working today, at least.

You see the world differently when you’re on a bike. Crossing the weird intersection between Fletcher and Freeman in town where the street jogs north, then south a bit, I enjoyed not having the blind spots I usually have in the car. On the trail, I was able to see a yet-to-be-harvested soybean field close-up. It’s been a late harvest here, and I’ve enjoyed watching the colors change in the bean fields, green to yellow to almost pink/yellow/brown to a sort of grey-brown. From the car window, everything was blurred into a multicolored fog as the plants matured. From my bike, I could see the individual pods more clearly.

Hopefully before winter comes in earnest, I’ll have a chance to make it all the way to Blue Mound State Park and back. The trail is supposedly six miles (one way, I think), and I imagine it gets hillier once you near the park itself. Once the snow hits, I’ll be looking for something else, though. Maybe I should dig out the pair of Yaktrax that I bought for navigating Dordt sidewalks (in twenty-five years, there’s been little improvement in sidewalk maintenance after ice storms) and use them for walking in winter here in town. Or, there’s always shoveling snow. –No, we still haven’t bought a snowblower. For now, though, I’ll enjoy the warmth while it lasts.