-Hope and Exercise
Having a sense of hope and believing that the future can be different from the present can serve as an antidote to depression. One way to activate hope is through movement and exercise, allowing your muscles to release myokines which have been shown to produce an uplifted mood.
Slogans like “healthy body, healthy mind,” “get fit or stay sick,” or “move it or lose it,” pop up when we think about exercise and movement. We’ve all heard that exercise is good for you, so why aren’t we moving more? According to 2019 data from CDC, three out of four adults and four out of five high school students don’t get enough physical activity (1). This includes not getting at least 150 minutes of “moderate” intensity activity plus some strength training during the week (2).
For those who do move regularly and lead physically active lives, the benefits are many. People who are physically active tend to be happier and have more life satisfaction. They are better able to cope with stress and anxiety, have better relationships and social connections, and are more connected to having a sense of purpose in their lives (3). Research has even started linking physical movement with hope. You see, every time you move a muscle, that muscle contraction prompts the muscle fibers to release a set of proteins and peptides called “myokines.” These myokines have protective effects on the brain and one’s mental health. They also help the body reduce inflammation, help fight off cancer, and even assist in regulating blood sugar levels.
Movement is also good for our mental health. This is important considering how the CDC estimates that half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point during their lifetime. In addition, those living with a severe mental health illness will die, on average, 25 years sooner (4). When it comes to exercise and mental health, researchers have begun referring to myokines as “hope molecules.” Health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, PhD, compares movement to ingesting an intravenous dose of hope, pointing out how every time you move your muscles, you are injecting a dose of hope right into your bloodstream.
How can we use this information regarding “hope molecules” and movement to help ourselves or someone else struggling with a mental health issue like depression? How can we translate this research into a daily practice?
Let’s use depression as an example. The Mayo Clinic describes depression as a “mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest… it affects how you feel, think and behave… you may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.” That sounds pretty grim (5). Let’s look at its symptoms.
The list of symptoms of depression is long. Common symptoms include fatigue and lethargy; small tasks feel like they take a lot of extra effort to do and seem to lose their meaning. We may lose interest in doing things, both with others or by ourselves. Someone who is depressed may have pervasive feelings of worthlessness, sadness, emptiness, and guilt. This can come with experiencing a sense of restlessness, agitation, anger, and a short temper. Sleep can be troublesome and intermittent. It can have an effect on speech and movement, and research is even looking into the “posture of depression” (6).
Depression can interfere with cognition, making it hard to focus, concentrate, or remember things. Dark thoughts and feelings can become so pervasive that a sense of hopelessness and despair becomes overwhelming. Thoughts about how “the world would be better off without me” start to invade the psyche.
Best-selling author and lecturer Brandon Sanderson talks about these struggles by centering the story in his books around characters struggling with depression and other mental illnesses. Depression, he says, puts a character in a place of non-action. But a key element of a story is having a sense of progress towards a goal and a protagonist who does meaningful things (7). So, a protagonist with depression is the opposite of what an interesting character is and what an engaging story is about. Who wants to read about a character who does nothing?
Let’s turn to a real-world example of how this can turn out. Welcome David Goggins. David Goggins is a well known ultra-distance athlete, public speaker, and retired United States Navy SEAL. But, If you were to take a peek at him as an 18-year-old, I doubt you or anybody else would have guessed what was yet to come.
His story has all the elements of a true fiction story with a heroic protagonist. Up until the age of 18, Goggins recounts how he didn’t have much heroism to show for his adolescence. In fact, he almost flunked out of high school. His memoir, Can’t Hurt Me, (8) describes the challenges Goggins faced growing up: poverty, abuse at the hands of his dad, violence, struggling at school, and having multiple learning disabilities. When it came time to take the ASVAB test so he could join the Air Force, he failed it twice before passing on his third try.
Beginning a military career at age 19 was a starting point for our hero. Goggins joined the Air Force with aspirations to be a pararescueman. Problem was, Goggins hated the water and struggled during water drills. His way out came when he was diagnosed with sickle cell trait partway through the training. The doctors gave him the option to drop out. He did. In a 2018 interview with All Hands Magazine (9), Goggins says of the diagnosis, “it kind of gave me a way out… I didn’t want to go back in the water, so I pretty much quit.”
For the next five years, Goggins worked as a tactical air controller for the Air Force. But inside, he felt defeated. Even though he had a medical reason for not finishing the training, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being a quitter and taking the easy road out. Goggins’ bad eating habits came back and he piled on the weight. It got even worse when he returned to civilian life.
After leaving the Air Force, Goggins began working the overnight shift as a pest exterminator and spraying for cockroaches. He lived paycheck to paycheck, and on his diet of fast food and junk food, his weight climbed to 297 pounds. Goggins says that on a typical day, after his overnight shift, he would stop at Steak ’n Shake and “go in and get a large chocolate milkshake. And then I would go across the street to 7-Eleven, get a box of mini donuts.” And he’d “pop donuts like Tic Tacs” while driving home and polish off the box and the milkshake (10). He would often stop by his mother’s house afterward for a thousand-calorie plus breakfast.
All that changed when he stumbled upon a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Navy SEALs. After coming home from work one day, Goggins turned the TV on and went to take a shower, a normal routine for him. While showering, Goggins could hear the TV blasting “Navy SEALs. Toughest training…” When he finished showering, he glued himself to the TV to watch the rest of the show. Something clicked. Goggins set out to become a Navy SEAL.
In the same 2019 interview with CNBC, Goggins recalls, “I got sick of being haunted by being nobody… I didn’t want to sit back and continually watch these shows about great people doing amazing things. I wanted that feeling in my ear that I believed that they had: of true accomplishment.” Problem was, Goggins was 24 years old and 297 pounds. At 6’1” the max allowed weight was 191 pounds. Goggins had three months to drop 106 pounds or he would miss his chance to become a SEAL. Time was ticking. The recruiters he saw laughed at him, “I heard so many ‘noes’,” he recalls. Finally, he found a recruiter who believed in him and put in the work; Goggins dropped the weight and went off to train for a shot at his dreams three months later.
This would only be the beginning of a taxing journey for Goggins. Becoming a SEAL would involve facing his fears around water and enduring an unimaginable training regimen. Getting accepted to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) doesn’t guarantee actually becoming a SEAL. In 2017, the Navy reported to NPR that 73% to 75% of candidates drop out (11). Goggins ended up going through “hell week” three times due to medical issues and injuries, before finally graduating with his Navy Seals Trident.
At this point, our hero is well on his way to being considered one of the best of the best. He earned “Top Honor Man” at Army Ranger School, served in tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even ventured into ultra-endurance sports. His venture into ultra-endurance competition began as a way to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (which pays for the college fees of children of special ops killed in combat, a way for him to raise money for the families of comrades lost).
Goggins has since raised over $2 million for the organization (12) and has run more than 60 ultra-marathons. If you want a taste of how tough this guy is, take a look at the title of some of these races: “Badwater-135” (a 135-mile foot race through Death Valley with an elevation gain of 8,371 feet), “Furnace Creek-508,” “Ultraman World Championships Triathlon” (a three day, 320-mile race), “Hurt-100” (a gnarly 100-mile race loop course). Goggins even set the Guinness World Record for the most pull-ups done in 24 hours (4,030 reps), in his third attempt, no less. Meanwhile, he underwent surgery when doctors discovered he had a congenital heart defect, which tends to limit heart function to 75%. If this isn’t some tough motherf$*!er (Goggins style) then I don’t know who is!
What captures us about stories like David Goggins’ is the progress he made and the challenges he overcame. He, too, struggled with depression; no future plans, living paycheck to paycheck, binging on junk food, not exercising, and leading a sedentary life. At 24 years and 297 pounds, nobody would have believed there was a Navy SEAL lurking inside that body. And yet, there was. Goggins got to work and found the strength within him and around him to achieve his dreams. He faced his fears and stumbled his way out of a dark place into a different future; a future as a Navy SEAL, an ultra-distance athlete, and well known public speaker.
People like David Goggins and stories of triumph through tragedy give us hope. Here is someone who didn’t have it easy yet found a way out of hopelessness. A person like Goggins sparks our imagination and nurtures in us a sense of hopefulness that we, too, can change our fates.
But what does hopefulness have to do with change? We all know that motivation and inspiration fade. What’s the difference between hope and motivation? It turns out research has something to say about it. Psychologist Charles R. Snyder points out that hope is not just an abstract concept. His research illustrates how hopeful people are more able to set clear goals and persevere when facing obstacles, even if it means finding other ways to achieve those goals (13). Put another way, Professor of Psychology Barbara Fredrickson (14) likens hopeful people to the little red engine in the children’s story Little Engine That Could, who keep telling themselves, “I think I can, I think I can.”
Hope and hopefulness are like the fuel for that little red engine that keeps chugging up the hill; far from being abstract, it can, in some ways, be measured, refilled and trained into our habits and actions.
Having a sense of hope and belief that the future can be different is about as close to a “cure” for depression as one could get. If hope was an antidepressant pill, the prescription label on the bottle would read, “Active ingredient: hope. Dose: move often and lots. Warning! Side effects may include better sleep, more energy, a stable mood, better immune function, improved concentration, and high levels of agreeableness. It may turn an individual into a more positive person, someone other people want to be around. Please consult your doctor or someone else about what to do next.”
If such an antidepressant pill existed, would you take it? Although sticking with our plans is challenging, you can start by moving today and every day. When you feel those down-in-the-dump thoughts and your couch is molding to your butt cheeks, get up and get moving. Do jumping jacks, push-ups, go outside for a walk. Use your brain to remind yourself how moving gets your muscles to secrete “hope molecules” (remember those myokines?). And use movement to grow more hope and become a more hopeful person. Over time, you don’t know what you can achieve and become. But it does start now, one step and muscle movement at a time.
Next up, Anya will go over different types of movements like CrossFit and cardio, and how to be smart about picking the type of movement you choose to do. But for now, get moving and move often. And when all else fails, you can go at it Goggins style and start playing the theme song to the movie Rocky and crank out some push-ups. That will surely get you going.
Let’s do this!
Today’s Assignment – Journaling Your Movement
- Every time you catch yourself feeling down today, do 10 push-ups or 20 air squats and write down how you feel after. Use exercise sort of like you’d use an anti-depressant pill (but consult with a doctor before altering your actual prescriptions).
- How can you use this energy to move forward with something you’ve been wanting to do? Movement can increase focus, so why not start that home project with a physical warm-up?
- Next level, do this today and every day you find yourself in a funk. Over time, you can tell yourself and your friends, “I had a 100 push-ups kind of day.”
- Bonus: for a deeper dive, listen to one of David Goggins’ interviews with Ed Mylett.
For the hard-charging athlete getting in their one-hour high intensity or endurance training block per day, lack of movement throughout the rest of the day can be problematic. Indeed, there is such a thing called “active couch potato syndrome,” which describes a person who moves well with their exercise once per day but is sedentary the other 23 hours.
Let’s practice some micro workouts over the course of the day. Just like in your assignment, plan out 10-20 reps of an exercise you’re comfortable with every other hour of the workday.
I once brought a 35-lb kettlebell into my office so it was a constant reminder to do a few swings or presses in between emails and calls to keep my blood moving throughout the day.