Lose your blues: if you're one of seven out of 10 Americans struggling with mild depression, cheer-up. A simple fitness solution will put color back into your life

Lose your blues: if you're one of seven out of 10 Americans struggling with mild depression, cheer-up. A simple fitness solution will put color back into your lifeAre you still trying to shake the shadows of 2001? Do the prospects of domestic and International "incidents" sap your energy and motivation? Just when you could benefit the most from the psychological perks of exercise, are you skipping workouts to stay home and watch bass fishing on ESPN2?

You may be suffering from low-grade depression, formally known as dysthymia, which is milder and tougher to identify than acute depression. Go ahead, duck the diagnosis with a halfhearted "I'm okay," but that's part of the problem. Unless a guy ends up in a fetal position under the bed clinging to a bottle of 40-day-old Scotch, he's likely to shrug off the suggestion that he's depressed. That explains why women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression: It's not that more of them get depressed; they're just more apt to admit it.

Mild depression was thought to affect about 5 percent of the male population. But last September may have rewritten that statistic. A poll conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center for the People & the Press a few weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center found that 70 percent of the country described themselves as depressed. And as we reach the first 9/11 since that 9/11, experts expect many people will relive the ordeal.

"It's part of the cycle when dealing with traumatic events that certain emotional and mental states are revisited around anniversary dates," says Barbara O. Rothbaum, Ph.D., director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University in Atlanta. "You can relive these feelings [through media coverage], but the trigger can also be subtle, such as reexperiencing the same temperature or the way the air smelled, or repeating activities you did then."


While acute depression tends to be more severe and short-lived--lasting six to eight months--dysthymia can continue for more than two years, with no longer than two-month periods without symptoms. The hallmarks of dysthymia include two or more of the following signs that impair work, social or personal functioning:

* Poor appetite or overeating

* Trouble sleeping or oversleeping

* Fatigue or low energy

* Indecisiveness or reduced concentration

* Poor self-image

* Feelings of hopelessness

* Social withdrawal

* Conflicts with family and friends

Associated signs include sexual dysfunction, guilt, obsession, addiction, anxiety or fear. For men, there can also be an element of anger. "Masculine depression has an abrasive, agitated edge to it," says John Lynch, Ph.D., co-author of The Pain Behind the Mask: Overcoming Masculine Depression.

What triggers dysthymia in men? Sometimes, just being a man. "The essence of the masculine culture is based on healthy self-worth," says Terrance Real, author of I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. "Our culture teaches young men to filter their sense of well-being through performance. You are either a winner or a loser, dominator or dominated. Men's self-esteem tends to go up and down like the Dow Jones. In fact, some men's self-esteem goes up and down with the Dow Jones."

On 9/11, "the basic feeling most people had was helplessness, and helplessness is the direct opposite of the mandate of traditional masculinity," says Real. "The one thing you cannot feel, as a man's man, is helpless and vulnerable. That's coded as feminine and weak."

Suppressing such emotions may turn into dysthymia, which can intensify feelings of vulnerability. "When men have depression, they don't want to admit it," says Real. "And some men do such a good job of hiding their depression that they manage to hide it from themselves." Self-awareness is avoided by excessive drinking or womanizing, isolating or lashing out; the latter can range from general irritability to domestic violence.

"What you get is not just the depression itself, but also the defenses a man is using to ward off the depression."


Recognizing the problem is the top priority; after that, medication and therapy are commonly used to treat depression, whether mild or severe. But Lynch believes that exercise and proper nutrition should always be part of the first line of defense.

"These are easy to implement with most people, and they can offer maximum benefit," he says. "You can't change depression if your body is out of shape."

Regular doses of physical activity can reduce feelings of depression. Researchers at Duke University found that three 30-minute workouts each week brought as much depression relief as drug treatment. In a follow-up study, nearly 40 percent of patients relying on drugs relapsed within six months, compared to 8 percent of those who stuck to exercising.

When investigators at the University of California at San Diego tackled the topic--drawing from data collected on nearly 2,000 subjects over two decades--they found that those who exercised at least three times a week had lower levels of depression. Those who had given up their workouts reported symptoms at the same rate as people who had never exercised.

This effect is often attributed to the release of endorphins (responsible for the famed "runner's high") and the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin, which many antidepressants manipulate to achieve their effects.

Consistency matters more than method or intensity. "What's important is to have an exercise that's sustainable," says Michael Craig Miller, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the symptoms of people suffering from depression dropped between one-third and one-half when they walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day for 10 days.

But how do you get motivated when you're feeling so low? "Get a workout buddy," says Lynch. "Someone who's going to kick you out the door and prod you to go for a run or get to the gym." Better yet, hire a personal trainer. That way you can establish structure and a routine--plus there's the impetus to avoid getting billed when you're a no-show.

"Both work in part like a social obligation," says Lynch, "so what helps to motivate you is that you're doing something larger than yourself."

Or you can simply fall back on dysfunctional gender-stereotyping: Tell yourself to act like a man, then get off your ass and do it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Exercise vs. depression.

Any regular exercise is an effective weapon in battling low-grade depression. The key is consistency: at least 30 minutes three times a week. However, the following forms of exercise do offer some inherent advantages:

Aerobics Aerobic exercise--running, cycling, basically anything that gets the heart and sweat glands pumping--appears to work faster than most antidepressants (which require two to four weeks to take effect). Aerobics also releases endorphins at a greater rate than other forms of exercise. A series of studies at the University of Colorado found that regular aerobic workouts improved the body's ability to handle the effects of stress by keeping immunity high and cells undamaged.

Strength Training Pumping iron increases energy by improving blood circulation and oxygen flow to the brain (always a good thing). Additionally, seeing the progress you're making can pump up your self-esteem. In fact, Duke University researchers suggest that exercise may alleviate depression by improving your sense of control.

Mind & Body Exercise that integrates mental and physical disciplines may be more psychologically beneficial than single-activity workouts. A report in Physical Educator found that college students who combined either guided imagery or tai chi with self-defense training for eight weeks showed significantly less anxiety and depression than a control group.

Walking It sounds mundane, but if you're depressed, taking a 15-minute walk at lunch may do more for you than waking up at dawn for a workout, says Michal Artal, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at St. Louis University in Missouri. Plus it gets you outside, and outdoor light has been shown to improve mood, especially during the winter.