Exercise and prayer: Aids in combating depression

DUBUQUE — I played community recreation league soccer for the first time in 6th grade. After the season was over, I told my mom that I didn’t like soccer because it was too much running. In 7th grade, I decided I wanted to go out for track. I have no idea what got into me. If I thought soccer was too much running, what did I think track was going to be?

I’ll admit, watching me run track was probably pretty painful; I know for a fact that my form was terrible. Despite that, I stuck with it and ended up enjoying it. I don’t know if it was the running that made it enjoyable, because I was sore and tired for basically the entire season. But somehow I found joy in running.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure that my depression started somewhere around 7th or 8th grade, but it definitely wasn’t debilitating; probably just my anxiety about high school and growing older. I went out for track again in 8th grade and found myself actually enjoying the running portion as well as the camaraderie of friends and teammates. I didn’t know it then, but I’m pretty sure that track helped me get through my tough middle school years.

Once I hit high school, my depression continued to get worse. However, I continued playing volleyball as I had done in middle school, although at this point, we did a lot more running in practice than we had previously. That definitely helped me through the fall, and when spring came around it was track that helped me. By this point, my form was improving and with the help of my coach, I began to blossom. Volleyball and track became my outlets for the next 4 years. I actually looked forward to getting all hot and sweaty. OK, maybe not that part, but I knew that after practice I was always in a much better mood.

At the time I thought it was just because I could release stress and have fun with friends, or in other words because I loved the sports. Now that I’ve done a bit more research and thinking, I’m pretty sure that the exercise released endorphins or “pleasure” chemicals in the brain that actually helped to change my brain chemistry, at least temporarily. There did come a point in my senior year where my depression became so bad that I was beginning to lose interest in the things that had kept me going: volleyball and track. I pushed through it though because I knew that my teammates would be disappointed if I didn’t finish it out. It became very clear to me at this point that the exercise was helping to put me in a better mood. Needless to say, I was pretty active during my middle school and high school years.

My activity level began to drop when I reached college. My priorities had definitely changed, and I no longer had a reason to keep running or doing much of anything active. I did walk to class and would occasionally go for a walk or run with friends, but nothing regular. My depression began to spiral out of control. I had absolutely no desire to do anything: including getting out of bed. I began isolating myself, and my friends began to notice a change. Eventually, during my sophomore year, things got so bad that I finally went to the doctor who started me on an anti-depressant. It seemed to help for a while and then I seemed to get worse again. I switched meds and that one again worked for a while, and then didn’t seem to be helping as much, so my doctor upped my dosage. I continue to take that medicine today. I always had the intention of getting out and being active, but I just didn’t have the drive or motivation to do it on my own. The intention was there, but the action was lacking.

Even though I take medication and see a counselor, I have begun to rediscover what helped me through high school before my official diagnosis: running. I spent the summer away from friends, family, and home at an internship in another state. I knew going into the summer that I wouldn’t have my support group so close, so I’d have to figure out something to help me get through. This is where my awesome advisor/mentor from here at Loras comes in. She told me that she’d help me figure out a running/training plan for the summer and gave me a website where I could track miles, times, routes, etc.

Finally! Someone to hold me accountable! I knew that I’d feel really guilty if she agreed to help me, and then I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. Because I had been away from running for so long, I started out running for about 3 minutes and then walking for 1 minute and repeating that sequence for about a mile. That gradually increased to running for about 6 minutes and walking for 1 minute. Eventually, I reached the point where I could go approximately a mile and a half without stopping.

After about a week or so of running (even for 3 minutes at a time), I could tell that something was different; I had more energy, I wasn’t as down. At first I attributed this change to not having the stress of school, but when my internship started to become more stressful and I was still feeling the same way, I decided it must be because of the running. It was amazing!

My return to running has also helped me return to a more regular prayer life. While most people reach for their iPod and headphones before a run, I reach for something different: my finger rosary. For those who do not know what a rosary is, it is a form of prayer/meditation that Roman Catholics use. It consists of repeating the “Hail Mary” prayer 10 times, saying a couple other prayers, and repeating the process until 5 sets (or decades) have been completed. Not only did saying the rosary give me something to do while I ran, but it also helped me be able to pray and think about what was going on in my life; I was able to hand over at least some of what I was dealing with to God. Praying the rosary while I ran kept me focused on my prayers rather than how much I didn’t want to be running. Eventually though, I got to the point where I couldn’t figure out if my mood was improving because of the running, the praying, or a combination of both.

I can honestly say that I don’t think I felt as good as I did during those months in several years. Sometimes, quite often actually, I still struggle with the idea of running and praying and actually getting up and going (or picking up the rosary and saying it), but once I do, I feel great. When I find myself struggling to get going, I saying to myself, “I know it might not be fun, but you’ll feel better afterwards” or something similar. When I’m actually running and want to give up on the last minute of running, I have begun saying to myself “keep going, you’re almost there,” “don’t give up!” and “you can do it” – all things that can be translated into helpful phrases when I’m struggling with my depression. It’s one thing to hear others say those things to you, but it’s another to be able to say them to yourself and believe them.

Being a scientist, I of course, had to do research on this and found several articles that support running as a way to help combat depression. With the credibility that some of these articles have, I have become a firm believer in the fact that exercise can be used (sometimes in addition to other treatments) to help combat depression and other mental illnesses. I, and others, can tell this to you until we’re blue in the face, but you really have to try it for yourself!

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