Your Happy Pill (Guest Blog)

Excerpted from

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.” – Henry Rollins

First, let’s define “depression,” as I’m sure it means different things to different people.

Excerpted from

Depression as a mood state is characterized by feeling sad, discouraged, or unhappy, while depression as a clinical condition is a psychiatric disorder in which diagnostic criteria require five or more depressive symptoms, one of which must include either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure along with at least four other depressive symptoms including significant weight loss, sleep disturbance, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death.

There are mountains of scientific literature that support the efficacy of exercise in the treatment of mood disorders that can be access via PubMed. An article that can be found here compiles findings from several years of studies on the benefits of exercise for clinically depressed patients. I found the following section to be particularly concise:

“Exercise appears to be an effective treatment for depression, improving depressive symptoms to a comparable extent as pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Observational studies suggest that active people are less likely to be depressed, and interventional studies suggest that exercise is beneficial in reducing depression. It appears that even modest levels of exercise are associated with improvements in depression, and while most studies to date have focused on aerobic exercise, several studies also have found evidence that resistance training also may be effective. While the optimal “dose” of exercise is unknown, clearly any exercise is better than no exercise. Getting patients to initiate exercise —and sustain it – is critical.”

Now, I’d like to focus on two specific points from the above paragraph…

  1. “Getting patients to initiate exercise — and sustain it — is critical”
  2. “The optimal “dose” of exercise is unknown”

I’ve said over and over again to clients and anyone else that would listen, that if there’s one common thread between healthy, fit people, it’s consistency. Really, nothing else matters nearly as much, as long as you show up when you’re supposed to show up and conduct yourself in an intelligent manner that’s suited to your objectives. This becomes especially critical in formulating a plan that is aimed towards goals of not only physical health, but also mental health.

My keys to improved consistency in exercise are:

  • Learn workouts that you can do at home. If you get home from work at the end of the day and driving 10-20 minutes to the nearest large commercial gym full of juiceheads isn’t your idea of a good time, there are plenty of ways you can get to work in your living room. I dealt with the topic of home based workouts here:
  • Learn workouts that you can do outdoors. A park or your backyard is ideal because being in the great outdoors is, in itself, an excellent mood enhancer. The possibilities for outdoor workouts are limitless. I love to use my imagination when devising them:
  • Pace yourself. Work hard, but don’t work so hard in a single session that you have to take the rest of the week off. This bring me to my next bullet point…

Let’s address the mythical “optimal dose.”  There are few words in the fitness domain that are as misleading as “optimal” — one of those corporate-america style buzzwords bandied about to make the speaker sound more sophisticated than he or she really is. The truth is that you and I could perform the exact same training protocol for a year and end up with completely different results. Individual physiology will always thwart our best attempts at arriving at a one-size-fits-all workout program for this purpose or any other.

I’ll deal directly with the issue of proper exercise intensities for mental health.

It’s important to keep in mind that when performed at elevated intensities, exercise causes systemic stress to the body. In fact, the generally agreed-upon symptoms of over-training are very close to the symptoms of clinical mood disorders.

Here are a few..

  • Change in sleep patterns, difficulty sleeping
  • Increased number of sickness and/or injuries
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Irritability

See what I mean? An over-trained body will end up worse off, resulting in undesirable effects. This means that extra care must be taken not to employ “get ready for the beach” style workouts if your goal is overall health and mood enhancement.

Then, add about 30 minutes of low intensity cardiovascular exercise a few days per week, such as walking, bike riding, kayaking, etc. When I say “low intensity” I mean employ a pace that gets your heart rate up but doesn’t force you to breathe out of your mouth. If you start huffing and puffing, take the intensity down a bit. Remember that consistency is key and that for the purpose of mental health, a workout should leave the trainee feeling energized instead of exhausted afterwards.

Finally, my advice for advanced trainees who want to make progress in the gym while staying/getting happy:

  • Minimize overtraining risk by stopping most sets a rep or two short of muscular failure.
  • Spread out the workload so you’re performing workouts more frequently, but with the overall volume distributed over more training days. When you’re in a bad frame of mind, I find it’s better to do more “light” days and take fewer days of complete rest. Rest days mean you’re going to sit around feeling sorry for yourself, so get in the gym five or six days per week.
  • Get adequate sleep, but try not to oversleep. The right amount of sleep is highly individual, but make sure you’re going to bed at about the same time and waking up at the same time. If you need more sleep, go to bed earlier rather than sleeping in.
  • Eat more protein. Trust me, just do it.


Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?” James A. Blumenthal, Ph.D., Patrick J. Smith, Ph.D., Benson M. Hoffman, Ph.D. ACSMs Health Fit J. 2012 July/August; 16(4): 14-21.