Two winters ago, while pregnant with my third child, I was formally diagnosed with depression.
I had struggled with feeling deep sadness and apathy in the past, especially during a period of postpartum depression after the births of my first two children.
But this was the first time my symptoms were bad enough that I knew I had to see a doctor.
I took a pretty traditional approach to my treatment. I was prescribed an antidepressant and started therapy.
Even though I moved forward with treatment, I also assumed that I just needed to get through my pregnancy and my son’s first few months of life, and then I would be feeling like myself again.
So far, that hasn’t been the case.
My son is nearly a year and a half old, and although I’ve felt like I “bounce back” during the warm summer months, the winter months have been especially hard.
I’ve found myself battling those familiar feelings of hopelessness and lack of motivation.
It’s a struggle to stay positive.
This winter, I wanted to take a more proactive approach to managing my mental health.
When I was first diagnosed with depression, my doctor recommended that I use short bursts of exercise to boost my mood whenever I’m feeling down.
As soon as I felt the symptoms creeping up, I was ready to take matters into my own hands.
Exercise has mental health benefits
I decided to apply my doctor’s advice as a mood-boosting workout once a day.
“When you get the blood flowing and moving around, it releases endorphins,” Stephen Graef, PhD, a sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline.
“Endorphins are released as a way to kind of combat the fatigue and the pain that we experience through physical movement such as exercise,” Graef explained. “From a mental health perspective, that is also going to give us those benefits of those same chemicals because they have that feel good, opiate-type of feeling to them.”
Graef pointed out that exercise will likely result in short-term benefits right from the start, describing it as a kind of exercise high.
He also shared that exercising consistently over time will bring even more benefits that help mood, like reduced stress.
As a working mom, I wanted to make achieving my goal of exercising once a day — and enjoying these benefits — as easy as possible. That meant removing time barriers.
I developed a simple seven-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout for my experiment. It didn’t require equipment or much space.
My seven-minute HIIT workout:
Do as many reps of each exercise for 30 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Do the full set two times:
- jumping jacks
- wall sit
Week 1: Getting started with morning workouts
During the first week of my experiment, I felt pretty excited to stick with my commitment.
I had been tracking my moods off and on and wanted to see if they would improve when I started exercising.
Specifically, I wanted to see if my afternoons would feel easier, because that’s typically when my mood drops.
I was looking forward to a surge of serotonin, plus the confidence that would come with crushing each workout.
In reality, the exercises were hard.
There were also other unexpected issues.
I was doing my seven-minute HIIT routine first thing in the morning.
Most days, this meant I was taking breaks to get one kid something as they got ready for their day, or my littlest was underfoot.
Although I did notice my mood improve right after exercise, I didn’t feel like it impacted my afternoons.
I was still dealing with a lot of frustration and discouragement once the exercise high wore off.
By the end of the week, I realized mornings might not be the best time for uninterrupted workouts and decided to try exercising in the afternoon the following week.
Week 2: Switching things up
When the second week rolled around, I decided to move my workouts to the afternoon.
When 3:00 p.m. hits, I usually want to crawl into bed.
Instead, I set an alarm for 3:00 p.m. and did my seven-minute workout while my kids had their post-nap snack.
Overall, the time change was a good move. But it still wasn’t easy to complete each workout.
I was struggling with the motivation to do HIIT most days.
However, once I finally talked myself into it, I noticed a boost in my mood. I wasn’t bouncing off the walls after each workout, but I was feeling more positive about the rest of the day.
Unfortunately, as the end of the week drew near, I felt like I was coming down with something.
My middle child had been diagnosed with the flu on Wednesday of that week, and by Friday I was barely getting out of bed myself. Physically, I felt awful.
Week 3: Veering off course
I really wanted to bounce back quickly from the flu, and to get back to my workouts so I could stick with my plan.
Instead, I found myself dealing with nasty chest congestion that made it difficult to climb my stairs, much less engage in an intense workout.
One thing I noticed this week was how hard it was for me to manage my mood.
Several days into the flu, I was feeling really negative.
I was frustrated with life in general, and not being able to do the things that helped me feel better (like exercising and leaving the house) only made matters worse.
By the end of the week, I was really anxious to pick up my workouts again.
Week 4: Getting back on track
After nearly 10 days of being sick, I finally started to feel well enough to get back to my HIIT routine. It was less of a triumphant return than a slow and steady effort.
I was feeling emotionally and physically worn out from being sick and taking care of three sick kids.
The workouts weren’t making me feel more positive, so I took my workouts to the gym.
I added some laps around the track in addition to the seven-minute HIIT workout.
I’m not sure if it was the workouts, the change in environment, or the joy of not being sick anymore, but I felt like my mood picked up toward the end of the week.
It wasn’t always easy to muster up the motivation to get my three kids to the gym, but I was always glad I did once we got there.
HIIT moving forward
By the end of a month of doing high-intensity workouts, albeit inconsistently, I’m certain it was an important addition to my mental health treatment.
But it isn’t a magic fix for my seasonal depression.
The biggest limitation of using exercise as a treatment for depression is that it requires a lot of motivation, which is something that many depressed individuals — myself included — find hard to come by.
Setting my alarm helped. I also felt accountable because I had committed to writing about the experiment.
When it comes to the benefits, I feel like the most powerful impact is the sense of control over my health that exercising gives me.
While my afternoons have been really hard since the weather changed, I now have a say in how my mood fluctuates, to an extent.
I don’t feel like my depression has completely melted away after my afternoon workout, but I also don’t feel like hiding in bed for the rest of the day.
Even though it’s seven tough, sweaty minutes, knowing I can improve my mental health in such a short amount of time is motivation enough to make exercise part of my weekly, if not daily, routine.