The Best Exercise for Depression
What is the best exercise for depression?
You might not think that exercise can help your depression, and instead, you assume you can only find relief with antidepressants.
The problem is threefold:
- Antidepressants might not help your depression, and worse, they could increase suicidal ideation and your risk of death
- Also, there are significantly negative and sometimes catastrophic side effects from antidepressants which can put you at risk of losing your career or business
- There are people who have treatment-resistant depression, so no pill will help
Fortunately, there is another path you can take which will help relieve your depression, even without antidepressants, as there are studies that document the benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. ¹
This is not to claim that exercise cures depression, but you can dramatically improve your mental and physical health with exercise.
But, when you are in the deep chasm of depression, you might have little interest in anything, including working out.
So, if you struggle with how to get motivated to exercise when depressed, I hope the following will help.
By 2012 I was at the lowest point in my life.
I struggled with obesity and depression and hit the highest weight in my lifetime, 275 pounds (125kg).
It was a vicious cycle:
- feel depressed
- get some junk food to calm the mind
- feel better from the temporary sugar high
- wake up the next day heavier than the day before
- feel depressed
Besides obesity and depression, I had all of the negative biomarkers common to men over 50:
- Out of control cholesterol levels
- High blood pressure
- A1c level dangerously close to type 2 diabetes
I was 55 years old, and only ten years before, I lived with my family.
At that time, I felt like a human being, a provider, a father, and a man.
But after my divorce, I could no longer recognize who I was; I lost my identity.
I felt like my life was over, and took antidepressants, resulting in suicidal thoughts, which is more common than you might think for men after divorce.
In June of 2012, I went to Wolffer’s estate vineyard on Long Island for a change of scenery.
It was the first time in my life visiting a vineyard, and the beauty was surreal.
Looking out at the rows and rows of grapevines far into the distance, glistening under the setting sun, I wondered about the owner of such a beautiful property.
What if a storm destroyed his amazing vineyard, home, and family?
How long would he mourn his losses?
I imagined the owner of the vineyard.
And I watched him as he sat on the ground of his field.
Without a doubt, I believed that he would not wait ten years to try and pick up the pieces and rebuild his vineyard.
No matter how tragic his losses were, no matter the pain.
Because as long as he still had his land, his field, and his strength, he would rebuild.
Man is like the tree of a field
Suddenly, I realized that I am the field.
Just as the vineyard owner still had his land, I still had mine.
Meaning my body, my life, and my consciousness.
I thought about how people speak to each other when first meeting – “what field are you in?” when they want to know what you do for a living.
Careers are called fields, and life is like a field.
Either you work at building one, or you don’t.
While I was standing on the porch looking out at the vineyard, I visualized the owner still sitting in the ruins of his previous life.
I watched him forlorn and mourning his devastating losses.
But, then, he got up.
He started moving.
And he began breaking up the dirt, again and again, breaking up the earth so he could plant a new vineyard.
He did not work in anyone else’s field, only his own.
Despite his traumatic losses, he stayed focused on tilling the soil and creating new rows in which to plant the seeds of next season’s grapes.
Instead of giving up, he pushed himself physically until he had replanted his entire vineyard.
Thinking about his former life would get him nowhere; he had to take physical action to rebuild his life.
The thought flashed in my head that there was no way I could ever talk myself out of obesity or depression.
Just like the owner of the vineyard, I had to get up and do something physical, but what do I do?
The lessons of the vineyard
I started to think of the vineyard as a parable.
That the grapevines, like so much of nature, is a great teacher.
So I thought about the steps the owner had to take to rebuild his vineyard from his desolate field.
And I hoped that similar actions would help me rebuild my life.
#1. Choose to Plant a Vineyard
Make a choice to be productive again.
#2. Avoid the Shade
Select a site with ample sunlight – think bright positive thoughts and avoid negative thoughts.
#3. Work the Field
Find an exercise to work the body, plow up the past, and work on the present.
#4. Plant the Field
Plant thoughts of hope and expectation for the future.
#5. Water the Ground
Get out of the processed food habit, and use real food for nourishment, just as the only fuel for the vineyard is water.
#6. Take Care of the Vineyard
Take care of the body, at least as well as the owner takes care of his or her vineyard.
Feed it on time, and get rid of weeds, or any obstacles to growth, which happen every single day
#7. Harvest the Vineyard
Be grateful for every accomplishment however small.
Focus on the best and not on the worst
#9. Press the Wine
Squeeze the best grapes, talents, opportunities that you have right now.
#10. Drink the Wine
Celebrate as often as possible the gift and miracle of life, with family and friends.
If wine can grow from the earth, I can turn my life around, I reflected, no matter how unbelievable that seemed to be.
The Vanderbilt Y
So, I chose to plant a vineyard but still did not know how best to work my field, my body.
And I had no clue what to eat, which would result in weight loss.
Fortunately, the latter was easier than deadlifting.
I often went to the Vanderbilt YMCA on 48th street in New York City to exercise.
But, I was fatter than when I first started ten years before!
Sometimes I went swimming, and other times I tried a bike class, did some weight machines, and walked on the treadmill.
Other than the years rolling by, my body never changed.
I could not lose weight, no matter how many diets or weight watchers and overeater anonymous meetings I tried.
I did curls with the same 20-pound dumbells for years.
Nevertheless, by 2012, I was sporting a 50-inch waist and extra-large plaid shirts to hide my ever-expanding belly.
I had always seen the free-weight area of the gym.
But that was the last place I ever wanted to venture.
First of all, the weights themselves were intimidating, and second, many of the people in the free weight area seemed to be in much better shape than the machine users, so it was embarrassing to go there.
And last, even if I wanted to, I had no clue what to do.
And how could a 55-year-old man even dare to think of lifting a barbell?
But, I did not forget my imaginary owner of the vineyard since I had gone to Wolffer’s estate.
So, I searched online to see which type of weight lifting was considered the best, the most effective, which kind of weight training could ‘break the earth, and till the soil’.
Enter the Deadlift – The Best Exercise for Depression
It is around this time that I first read about a compound weightlifting movement called the deadlift.
There were conflicting opinions about which lift was the king of all exercises, either the squat or the deadlift.
But, I knew I could barely squat down due to a torn meniscus, so the deadlift was the only option left.
I could not believe all of the hype.
How effective could one exercise be?
You bend down and pick up the weight, what’s the big deal!?
The big deal is that the deadlift works all the muscle groups of your body in one movement.
The deadlift fascinated me because of its simplicity and potential.
As well as the possibility that it was something I could do, even at the age of 55.
First deadlift workout
One night in the summer of 2012, instead of going to the pool, or the treadmill, or sitting in a weight machine, I went to the free weight area.
I figured there would not be too many people in the weight room at 9 pm.
I took hold of a 45-pound Olympic barbell, stood with it, and practiced my first Romanian deadlifts.
From a standing position, I lowered the barbell to just below my knees with the best form possible.
And then I stood back up, being careful to keep my back flat.
I added a little weight and did it again.
I had read that mastering the hip hinge is a critical part of performing a deadlift safely.
A hip hinge means that you bend and lower the barbell by pushing your hips back.
And since I had already thrown out my back some years back, as well as having a torn left meniscus in my knee, I wanted to use the best deadlift form possible to prevent another injury.
For 20 minutes or so, I practiced Romanian deadlifts, which start from a standing position.
And then I put ten-pound bumper plates on each side of the barbell while it was on the floor.
A bumper plate is the same size as a 45-pound weight, but made out of rubber and much lighter.
With two bumper plates, I was now ready for my first deadlift from the floor.
Was I self-conscious?
Was I anxious about lifting free weights?
What right did I have to be in a weight room where athletes, bodybuilders, basketball players, and powerlifters train?
But on the other hand, I thought, what right did I have not to allow myself to look and feel better?
No matter how embarrassing it might be.
After an hour at the gym practicing the deadlift, I felt better than I could remember.
I do not mean only physically, but also in my mind.
When I walked out of the Y that evening, I knew that there was no antidepressant I had ever used that gave me the same boost in mood.
I felt so good after that deadlift workout that I did not want to get my favorite muffin, cookie, or ice cream.
Instead, I wanted to eat real food, and go deadlift the next day as well.
But, there was a small problem; I could barely walk!
My entire body was sore, but the right type of soreness when you activate muscles that have been dormant for decades.
I thought the aches would go away the second day, but they got worse, and it was not until a week later that I could go back for another shot of deadlifts!
Six Months Later
After six months of deadlifting once or twice a week, doing pushups every other day, and changing over from processed to real food on a daily basis, I dropped 75 pounds.
I was as shocked as anyone else.
Read my about page for more details on my eureka moment which led me to give up processed foods for real foods, and it’s magical benefits.
I looked and felt better than I had in decades.
Even using hair dye did not help me look or feel better.
I still could not do squats, but I was getting closer.
My 50-inch waist magically deflated to 32 inches, and I bought a suit off the rack to celebrate.
Even better, I slowly stopped using antidepressants and started to feel more optimistic about the future.
I imagined that wherever life would take me, I wanted to show up as the best version of myself possible.
Nine Years Later
I still deadlift once or twice a week.
Those weeks when I cannot deadlift, because of injury or weather, I feel the difference fast.
Up till 2019, I was 170 to 175 pounds (70 – 77kg except for one difficult period when I got sloppy and regained 40 pounds.)
However, I dropped down to 154 lbs in April 2019 because I needed emergency pyeloplasty surgery to save my life.
From a simple blood test, my doctor discovered that my kidneys were failing because of a congenital UPJ obstruction of my left kidney.
Since the surgery, my weight has been 160 pounds; I lost a lot of muscle and strength during the 3 to 4 month recovery time.
I did not know if I could ever deadlift again.
But thankfully, I am and getting stronger with time.
Tip: Know what your GFR (glomerular filtration rate) is and drink at least 2 liters of water a day for kidney health.
How the Deadlift Saved My Life
It is true that popping a pill is a lot easier than doing exercise for depression, but look at how exercise could help you (as it helped me):
- accelerate weight loss
- beat obesity
- achieve an ideal weight for your height
- normalize blood pressure
- lower cholesterol
- reverse type 2 diabetes
- build muscle
- increase testosterone
- change your body from obese to fit
- look more like an athlete than a jelly donut
- improve your mobility
- build confidence
- walk taller
- move easier
- look better in a suit
- strengthen your leg muscles, as deadlifting did for me around my torn meniscus
- get agile enough to start squats
- boost your mood
- manage depression without antidepressants
- stop suicidal thinking which is a great relief
- rebuild your body and life
How to Change Your Life
Today, 40 percent of the US adult population is obese.
And another 35 percent is overweight.
And, 17.3 million adults, 7 percent of the US population struggle with depression.
Close to 9% of adult females and 5.5% of men grapple with depressive episodes. ²
The most striking statistic is that 60% of those affected by depression receive no treatment! ²
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children above age 10, teenagers, and adults up to age 34.
And suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults from ages 35 to 54.³
Over 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017, double the number of homicides in that same year.
Although it is not a pleasant topic to discuss, we must help ourselves, family and friends find a treatment that works.
You might fall into the overweight, or obese category of adults since 75% of the US population are in the same boat.
Depression is less prevalent, but there is a plan for you if you need help and are not getting it.
Hopefully, you never have and will never know anyone with suicidal ideation, but if you do, there is still hope to escape its grip.
There is an alternative path to combat obesity and its related conditions, which includes depression.
Antidepressants do not work for everybody.
Millions of people have treatment-resistant depression.
But, even if you have treatment-resistant depression, you can still boost your mood naturally, and change your life.
Is There a Best Exercise for Depression?
You might hate deadlifting but love swimming or running.
The best exercise for depression is the one you enjoy and stick to.
For me, I found that deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and pushups, along with real food, changed my body and life in ways that I could never have imagined.
I’m not special.
If the modification of lifestyle habits could help me, it can certainly help you.
For me, the deadlift worked and still works wonders.
I still deadlift once or twice a week.
I do not deadlift much weight after surgery (yet 🙂 but do enough to stay fit.
You do not have to deadlift heavy to change your body.
Yes, if you want to compete in powerlifting or the world deadlift championships, you will need to increase the weight you lift.
But for general fitness, you do not need to lift super heavy.
Be consistent and add weight gradually beyond your comfort zone, and compete against yourself, your body.
That is all you have to do to lose weight and look and feel better than ever.
Maybe deadlifting will work for you, or perhaps you will find that biking, running, swimming, yoga, or golf are better depression coping exercises.
No matter what, you have to start moving daily, doing something that you love, and eat real food, and you can change your life.
How to Get Started as a Deadlift Beginner
#1. Learn 5 simple ways to lose 20 pounds in 3 months without suffering, simple lifestyle habits you can use for the rest of your life
#2. Understand the most important muscle groups worked by the deadlift
#3. Get familiar with the fantastic deadlift benefits for your mind and body
#4. Use this beginner deadlift workout routine
#5. And this 12-week beginner deadlift program
#7. Add a squat workout to unleash your fitness even further.
Best Exercise for Depression – Final Thoughts
Does exercise help depression?
By now you know there is no question that it does, and my experience is that deadlifting (and probably any other full-body compound training) is the best exercise to beat depression.
I still imagine myself at Wolffers estate, in the vineyard, working on my field, a work in progress, but every season, I learn more and am committed to producing the best wine possible.
Are you hungry for change and salvation from your depression or obesity?
Then find your best exercise to beat depression and obesity, and you will succeed in soon celebrating your new health, fitness, and lease on life.
I recommend the deadlift.
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