What lifts depression, jump-starts creativity, soothes jitters, muscles up immune systems, reignites sex lives, and zings your body with tiny arrows of pleasure? Would you believe: small—really small—amounts of regular exercise. Honestly, it's a miracle.
Jennifer Travis* was a 28-year-old student pursuing a second master's degree at the University of Wisconsin. She lived alone, rarely went out except to her classes, and constantly complained that she would never meet the man of her life. Her existence seemed empty, and she had lost hope that it would change. Her only consolation was her beloved three packs of cigarettes a day. She spent her time watching smoke waft upward in wreaths instead of concentrating on her course notes.
Jennifer wasn't surprised when the doctor at the school clinic reported that her score on a scale for depression placed her among the most affected 10 percent of the patients there. By then her depression had been going on for two years, but neither of the suggested treatments was acceptable to her. She did not want to talk to a psychologist about her mother and father or the problems of her childhood. And she refused medication because, as she said, "I may be depressed, but I'm not sick." She agreed nevertheless to take part in a research project the doctor was conducting, perhaps because it seemed like a challenge.
Jennifer was supposed to jog three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes. She could run alone or in a group—how she did it was completely up to her. At her first meeting with the jogging instructor, the reality of what she had signed up for hit her in the face. How could he possibly expect a person 20 pounds overweight who had not exercised since the age of 14 and smoked three packs a day to start running? The last time she'd gone biking, she had made it only ten minutes and thought she was going to die. "Never again," she'd sworn. And the idea that she needed an instructor to learn how to run seemed even more ridiculous.
Still, Jennifer listened to the instructor's advice, guidance that turned out to be absolutely essential to her future success.
First, he directed her to take very small steps, trotting rather than running, leaning forward very slightly, without raising her knees too much. Above all, she was told to go slowly enough to hold a conversation ("You have to be able to talk but not sing," the instructor insisted). If she got out of breath, she was ordered to slow down—if need be, to go at no more than a brisk walking pace. She must never experience pain or fatigue.
The goal at the outset was simply to cover a mile, taking as long as she liked, trying to jog as much as possible. The fact that she managed to reach this objective on the very first day was a source of satisfaction for her. After three weeks, at a rate of three weekly sessions, she was able to keep up her jogging pace for a mile and a half, then two miles without any real hardship. She had to admit that she found herself feeling a bit better—overall, she was sleeping more soundly, had more energy, and was spending less time dwelling on her problems. Then, at the end of one of her runs, she twisted her ankle—not badly enough to completely immobilize her but enough to keep her from exercising for three weeks. She was surprised at how disappointed she was not to be able to go jogging. After a week, dark thoughts came crowding in and she noticed her symptoms of depression returning.
When Jennifer's ankle healed and she was finally able to exercise again, the depression waned within a few weeks. She had never felt so well. Even her period—which was usually very painful—seemed less uncomfortable. Long after the research project ended, Jennifer was still regularly spotted running around the lake with a smile on her face.
*Indicates name has been changed.
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