Exercising with depression: mind versus body

I’d like to flag upfront that this is something that is very much still a work in progress for me. My body, pale and solid, was very clearly designed by generations of Celtic ancestry to prepare me for a) childbirth and b) farm work.

As neither are currently in the cards for me, my default setting in terms of physical activity is fairly akin to a large house-cat. Given free reign, I would sleep for twelve hours a day and lounge for a further 11.5, leaving myself a good half an hour to devote to walking to and from the kitchen.

Looking back, my image of myself as a kind of anti-athlete stems from being the only ten-year-old on the playground with rapidly-expanding, thoroughly unwieldy boobs. I have a vivid memory of the first time I realised those bad girls would need strapping down if I was to continue dashing about the place.

It doesn’t help that at around the same time I moved from Africa to the UK, effectively plunging me into a Lindsay-Lohan-in-Mean-Girls-esque culture crisis. I did not understand the rules of netball. Or rounders. My skill at baseball and a vicious, Afrikaans version of contact-rugby meant nothing. When faced with the prospect of voluntarily donning maroon bloomers to take part in field hockey, I gracefully bowed out of the whole system, doffing my hat and saying: “Have at it, ladies, but this is not my cup of tea.”

Since then, my relationship with exercise has been on-again, off-again. Like a lot of size 14 teenage girls, I was firmly convinced that my life would begin when I lost weight, but I never enjoyed dieting or exercise enough to maintain a consistent effort. As a naturally depressive personality, I valued the brief patches of joy brought by laziness and food far more than I valued some prospective future of rock-hard abs.

In short, I thought I had enough things making me miserable without adding ‘failure to get fit’ to my list.

Then, in the summer of my Master’s degree, something shifted a little. A perfect storm of motivating factors came into play. For one thing, I had a lot of free time, having quit my barista job to focus on my thesis over the summer. For another, a member of my family was quite mentally unwell, and I had the sudden urge to find coping mechanisms of my own before winter returned, bringing with it the inevitable depression and mood-swings.

I had eight weeks to kill, exactly, before starting a new job in London. I’d read a book, which had helpfully told me that people are often dishonest with themselves about what they want, and I had decided that what I wanted was this:

I wanted to be a runner.

I wanted to be the sort of person who laced up trainers, pulled on a parka, and went for a run.

I wanted that freedom, that time to myself, that feeling of achievement.

I wanted to set myself goals and actually see something come from them.

So, I set out with a couch-to-5k programme. Everything became focused, in my mind, on my goal. My weight put pressure on my joints, so I was motivated to eat clean and shed some pounds. I did yoga for flexibility, kettlebells for strength.

I kept going. The next February, I ran a half marathon. In London, my commute was 15 minutes, so I could run twice during the week for an hour each and still sleep enough, still make it to work on time. I shed two dress sizes and felt brilliant.

This year, that changed. I moved in with my Welshman, which took my commute from 15 minutes in one direction to 70, effectively swallowing the two hours I might have spent doing yoga and going for a run. Work became unrewarding and stressful, and home life was a steep learning curve that required more of my focus and energy than it had when we lived apart.

I stopped running. Stopped exercising completely, after a few stop-and-start attempts to find an alternative. There was no gym near my work or home I could use, no practical solution I could find.

I gained weight, and fell into the worst depression of my life.

I do think the two are related. Exercise had become so fundamental to my health that its loss was difficult for my brain and body to compensate for. That said, every time a loved one suggested I would feel better if I took up running again, I felt like crying.

I can’t, I wanted to scream. It takes all my energy to wake up, go to work and come home. I need my sleep. Do you have any idea how tired I am, all the time?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, on a sunny Sunday (winter running is miserable and daunting if you’re not used to it, not to mention dark) I started another couch-to-5k. It was humbling to start again from the beginning, but it also felt like a radical act of self-love.

Hey, I said to myself, this is an achievement. On its own, this is an achievement.

A wise woman suggested that I reward myself if I managed to run three times a week, but also reward myself if I didn’t, because self-flagellation was part of the reason I had lost my motivation in the first place.

It’s early days, still. But there are ducklings in the park, and dogs, and I listen to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and reflect on my life. I take it, quite literally, one step at a time, and I try to listen to my body.

I spare a lot of empathy for other people, and don’t save a lot for myself. I’m trying to be kinder, to ignore the cruel voices in my head, and for me this act of taking half an hour for myself three times a week is an act of kindness.

The journey is long, but the first step is getting out the door.

With love, always,


Remember to like, share and comment! How do you balance exercise with relaxation?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible

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