Study after study has shown that exercising is a fantastic way to improve one’s mood and depression symptoms. When you’re already depressed, however, it can be a challenge to leave the house, let alone clock 5k on a treadmill. Here’s an idea, though: a new study suggests that hiring a coach renders better results than training alone in terms of improving depression outcomes.
You don’t have to do this alone
For their study, researchers at Iowa State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, enlisted 17 women with major depressive disorder (MDD).
Each participant had to complete two, 30-minute exercise sessions on a stationary bike. One session was performed at the participants’ own preferred intensity, while the other session was supervised by a coach which gave directions when to push harder and when take it more easy.
The researchers led by Jacob Meyer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, drew blood samples immediately after each exercise session. They also measured mood and anxiety at 10 minutes and 30 minutes after the workouts.
The blood tests enabled the researchers to analyze changes in endocannabinoid levels — self-produced psychoactive compounds typically found in marijuana. It’s endocannabinoids like anandamide, which is present at high levels in people’s blood after vigorous exercise, that is thought to be responsible for the “runner’s high”: a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lessened ability to feel pain.
These tests showed that endocannabinoids spiked particularly high in the participants who were coached on how far to push themselves, as opposed to those who pedaled at their own pace. Both groups self-reported improved mood, however, the coached women felt better than those who had no guidance.
“Finding alternatives to medication is important for the treatment of depression,” Meyer said. “If we can figure out how exercise works with the endocannabinoid system, we could then design optimal exercise interventions.”
For Meyer, the results, which were published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, were somewhat surprising. These differences, he explains, may arise from variations in the preferred session.
In 2016, he and colleagues studied the association between exercise and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that regulates neuron growth and survival. In people with depression, BDNF levels are lower. The study found that when women with MDD were asked to perform a different exercise routine of the same intensity with the one they previously selected, they had higher BDNF levels following the prescribed session.
“Having someone else prescribe the exercise could be involved in both the psychological and biological response to exercise,” Meyer said.
Having a coach or personal trainer facilitate your exercise routine is thus something worth considering for those battling depression. Not only is the coach able to push you harder, he or she can also keep you accountable so you’re less likely to skip the gym.
If these findings inspire you to seek out a personal trainer, here are some tips:
- Interview thoroughly. You’re paying someone for their services, so you might as well pick a person who is the best fit to help you with your goals. Ask them about how they helped previous clients who were in the same situation as you or what’s their strategy for customized training giving your mental health goals.
- Choose a certified trainer. The world is full of so-called coaches and personal trainers. If you’ve never set foot in a gym, it can be difficult to ascertain a person’s skills. This is why it’s a good idea to look for someone who’s a certified trainer or coach, such as a person who’s prepared for the NASM CPT exam.
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘No!’. Depression can a harrowing experience in and of itself, nevermind having some person scream at you ‘Just one more!’ It’s okay to say ‘not this time’ and set clear boundaries if you feel you’ve had enough. Your goal is to improve your mood after a workout and look forward to going to the gym, not graduate bootcamp.
- Don’t book too many sessions upfront. You’ll be spending quite some time with your trainer, and just like any relationship it may or may not work well. Like in dating, it’s wise not to invest too much time and energy in a person if the investment is not reciprocated. Book just a couple of sessions with a trainer to feel the waters, then continue if all goes well or find a different trainer who’s more suited to your needs and personality.
Remember, even if you don’t have someone to supervise your training, exercising by yourself at any intensity can still improve the depressed mood state.