Exercise Can Help Depression When You Work With A Coach, A Study Says, & Here’s How To Find One

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When you live with depression, one of the most infuriating things to hear is 'exercise and you'll feel better.' Because while many studies have shown that exercise provides a short-term boost in serotonin levels, those boosts are helpful for mood improvements rather than functioning as a 'cure' for depression. But a new study suggests that working out with a coach may help ease women's depression symptoms, so if you're looking for any advantage you can get against your depression, personal training might be helpful.

The study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, suggested that there might be more to the sensation of "runner's high" than just increased serotonin. Researchers for the study instructed participants to exercise on a stationary bike for 20 minutes and then had the women give blood and respond to a questionnaire on their emotional state. The blood tests looked for changes in endocannabinoid levels.

These self-produced psychoactive compounds (similar in effect to marijuana) spiked particularly high after participants were coached on how intensely to work out, as opposed to pedaling at a pace they set by themselves. After these intense sessions, participants also self-reported feeling like their mood had improved more than it did when they just worked out without guidance. In other words, exercising on your own can be good for combating depression, but exercising with a coach can be even better.

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This makes sense, considering that if you work with a personal trainer or coach, they should be knowledgeable about what kinds of exercise are most effective for all kinds of needs. For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice suggested that in addition to therapy, moderate-intensity steady-state aerobic exercise help ease depression symptoms very effectively. And according to a 2019 study published in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience journal, elite athletes are not less likely to experience depression than the rest of the population, but knowing when to rest and recover from gym time is an essential part of managing emotional health in sports.

Having a coach is extremely helpful for both pro athletes and your average gym-goer (and all kinds of people in between) in knowing how hard to go and how hard to rest. As a personal trainer who also has depression, I know how true this can be from both sides of the equation. When you're depressed, even getting yourself up off the ground, into clothes (sneakers, too), and out to the gym can be absolutely harrowing.

And sometimes, knowing someone is going to meet you there can help. Then once you're actually in the gym, it's easy for your mind to wander back into tough places. But with an empathetic trainer at your side, you don't have to think. You can just do.

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And just doing is often something that has often helped my clients clear their mind and just let their bodies focus on the workout. This certainly seems to be what happened in the recent study.

But how do you find a trainer that's going to strike that balance between pushing you toward emotional and physical success and pushing you in ways you're uncomfortable with? If you're in the market for a personal trainer, try the following steps:

  • Remember that you are paying someone for a service: interview that person as though you are interviewing them for a job (because you literally are). Be as specific as you feel comfortable with regarding your emotional health, but a few general questions can be: "What's your strategy for creating a program that's going to be personalized to me? How did it go if you've worked with clients before who shared had my specific goals? How do you make in-session changes when clients need a change in their program?"
  • Set your boundaries! You do not have to do anything and everything your personal trainer tells you to. If your body hates what you're doing or if your depression or anxiety kick in, you're allowed to call a time out. Always!
  • Try not to buy a huge number of sessions up front. I'm sorry, fellow personal trainers of the world, but you deserve to know that your person is an effective and supportive match for you. That they'll push you without doing more harm than good. So maybe buy a few sessions, but not months and months worth, until you know and trust them. Think of it like dating: you don't have to go all in until that knowledge and trust is there!

And as you're journeying to the gym, remember that more than half of the women participating in the recent study were taking at least one anti-depressant. This implies heavily that participants were receiving at least some form of therapy. So if you do choose to work out with a coach, that's awesome and potentially very therapeutic! But remember that it's valid and important to seek other forms of support, too: you deserve it.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.