Mindful movement, depression cure- how physical fitness helped me heal

I’m an active person.

My mind is active, all the time, so I do a lot of thinking.

I do some walking.

And I do a fair amount of Peloton-ing.

The Peloton was my first love when it comes to physical fitness. I played some basketball and volleyball when I was younger, as you do when you are a tall lady, but I never felt attracted to it the way I do that shining, gleaming hell machine in my basement. In fact, the way I work out now, it shocks me to remember how I often sneered at physical fitness like a high school drama club kid.

Well, I was a high school drama club kid. We did sneer, vehemently, at athletic pursuits, and often chose casual strolls through the hallways instead of dodgeball or basketball during gym class. Don’t mind the fact that we pushed our bodies to the limits in the Huge Jazzy Dance Number before intermission, panting with chests heaving as the curtain closed over our smiling faces. Art, we believed, was not made by athletes. Art was an exercise of the mind and soul, made by moody, introverted, oily teenage kids who love makeup and costumes and singing as loudly as possible in the Denny’s corner booth after our Saturday closer.

On one hand, I get it. No self-conscious teenager enjoys being sweaty in front of, or physically close to a sweaty version of, her classmates. On the other hand, it makes me sad to consider the life-changing benefits of moving my body that I may have missed out on in order to stay intellectually respected- working out was selling out in the eyes of a high school theater kid.

Through most of my adolescence, I lived a sedentary lifestyle (save those heavy-breathing jazz-hands dance workshops in the high school cafeteria). This bled into college, where I had neither the time nor the interest to do anything other than eat, sleep, study, and be with my friends. It wasn’t until lockdown, when my mom purchased a Peloton as a Christmas gift to herself (baller move), that I started to even consider working out. Little did I know it would, ahem, completely change my life- and improve almost every mental state I’ve ever been in.

Exercise and the brain

Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most successful comedians alive, was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, Smartless. In his episode, Seinfeld talked about his daily routine- splash cold water on his face, exercise, and write jokes. The latter was a habit he cultivated and popularized via “the chain method” that has made him a prolific comedian, but the former two were not in service of his career. They were in service of his mental state- “keeping the depression away” every single day.

Seinfeld cited the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain in the same breath as his retelling of his routine, and once I started reading it, my jaw hit the floor. If I could summarize the main idea of this book, it would be:

  • Exercise, you idiot, it will cure every ailment you have.

The author John Ratey (who definitely needs a website facelift) provides peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study of ways that exercise addresses and aids in the treatment of multiple mental states, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, stress, and more. It is a slim and fascinating book, plainly written, and revolutionary to the mind of an intellectual who used to psh at the sight of lacrosse players jogging around in their skirts.

The findings in this book confirmed what I knew from experience- movement mends the mind. Our surroundings are evolving much more quickly than our brains, which are still stuck somewhere in the Paleolithic era where humans did not spend 8 hours a day seated at a desk. We were created with arms and legs and muscles that need to be used, fervently, in the form of athletic pursuits. Whether that’s cycling, running, dancing, swimming, volleyballing, basketballing, or just walking around your neighborhood, movement is critical in respecting and honoring our bodies and our minds.

I clipped into the Peloton for the first time in December of 2020. My first ride was a beginner ride, and I found it to be just the right amount of challenging. I felt motivated and excited by the instructor’s wisdom, and the music helped the class move quickly. Nevermind the fact that I didn’t know how to unclip my shoes out of the bike, so slipped my feet out instead, leaving the shoes firmly attached to the pedals- the first ride moved something in me. I didn’t want to admit how much I enjoyed it, to myself or anyone else… But mysteriously found myself sneaking back every week for just one more ride.

Now, a few years later, I ride every week. Over the past 3 years I have rode to become more physically fit, to lose weight, to release my anger, to release my sadness, to maintain a weekly streak, to fulfill an every-Monday commitment, to lose myself in music, to feel sweaty, to feel good. I move my body because once I started moving I started craving- my legs would twitch with anticipation of another ride and my mind pulled me towards that basement, that bike, that feeling. It’s the best and most healthful addiction I’ve ever had. And it kicked off a commitment to wellness that has served me in all of my mental states- most notably that of depression and anxiety.

My journey with depression

When I clipped in for that first time in December of 2020, I was where many people were at the time- experiencing anxiety and depression for the first time. I truthfully thought that anxiety and depression were not really that bad, and that you could think your way out of these mental injuries. It wasn’t until I spent every waking second consumed by negative thoughts that didn’t feel like my own that I saw the error of my thinking. Clinical depression, I learned, is no joke, and whereas before I saw laziness, I now saw debilitating paralysis.

I spent a lot of mental energy trying to combat these negative thoughts in a vain attempt to prove to myself I could outthink these problems. Being an otherwise joyful and joke-cracking personality, I found the content and force of negative thinking to be too much to bear alone. I finally woke up one morning and realized I couldn’t keep living like this and, no matter how the chemical imbalance attacked me with spears of self doubt, I knew deep down I didn’t deserve to. I sought help immediately and am now on medication that WORKS that I don’t even think twice about.

Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t just wake up one morning and realize I couldn’t keep living like this. I woke up one morning, had a really scary thought, and got my ass into gear.

My wake up call was on the morning of a family trip to a local state park called Letchworth, famous for its gorge-ous views and cliffside waterfalls. I woke up and, as it did every morning, my stomach plunged into a flurry of anxious debilitating thoughts the moment I opened my eyes, a tornado sweeping up any scraps of joy and spitting them back out blackened and defeated. I tried in vain to “anchor into the present” and “think happy thoughts,” but I was in survival mode, adrenaline gushing through my bloodstream as I fought every thought I had. This is something I didn’t realize about depression before I had it- there’s no stopping it. You can’t think your way out.

Finally, I curled into a tight ball and squeezed my eyes shut, feeling like I just wanted this pain to go away. And I’ll never forget how time stopped in this moment, when an image literally crossed the blackness of my mind, from left to right, of a paper angel with hair like mine, feeling pain-free, floating to heaven from the Letchworth gorge. It was one of those moments in life when all the creatures on earth seem to be holding their breath, waiting for your next move. I opened my eyes and gasped through a sob. “NO,” I said out loud, crept down the stairs trembling, and finally told my parents I needed help. I started an antidepressant the next day.

A word on medicine

The following rhyme is 100% true and beautiful:

Jesus loves me,

This I know,

For he gave me Lexapro.

I struggled with the idea of medication for a very long time, mostly because I saw it as extremely unnatural. My ancestors, the purest humans, never took antidepressant medication. (Never-mind that they didn’t take any medicine, actually, and so died at like 20 years old.) I thought, why poison my body when I can take care of business myself by out-thinking the negative thoughts? (HA!)

It took me months to reconcile the idea that the anxiety and depression I was experiencing was triggered by equally unnatural things. The world we live in is filled with “unnatural” things, including the computer I’m typing on, the 24-hour news cycle, chemically processed food, fragrances, clothes, advertisements inundating our eyeballs. I can’t control the unnaturalness of the world we live in. But I can combat it with something that will help this fairly natural reaction to the current environment.

I’m no psychotherapist, and you should consult one immediately if you’re considering antidepressants, but I cannot recommend medication highly enough. Some people have cancer. They get chemotherapy. Some people have heart disease. They take a medicine for that. Some people, like me, have anxiety and depression. I take an antidepressant for this, because it is the logical thing to do. Some people can out-think their thoughts on their own without medication and work some serious magic, and I tip my hat to them. I am not one of these people. And I’m okay with that.

I don’t understand anxiety or depression in the ways that I wish I could- I just can’t wrap my head around why it happens in the first place- but medicine alleviates me of the need to think about that. It doesn’t excuse me of my responsibility to tend to myself and maintain a lifestyle of wellness. It just wipes about 80% of my symptoms off of my plate for me. That’s really nice. Medicine = less struggle = less Sadness = better Amanda.

Fitness + healing

The trip to Letchworth and subsequent “oh sweet Jesus I need help” moment was two and a half years ago. Since then, I have become quite obsessed with the way that movement makes me feel. Whether it’s making up dances or taking walks with my two best friends, walking around my neighborhood in early morning light, or, yes, riding the Peloton, I’ve noticed that moving alleviates my stress and helps me think better. Read Spark for the scientific reasons why.

This past fall I returned to that same state park, this time with my boyfriend, in a very different mental state. We hiked about a mile to a particular waterfall, our chests heaving and our backs slick with sweat as we approached the railing. We waited our turn among a throng of tourists, and finally got our full view of the autumn scene.

Watching the waters of the waterfall churn and leap over the edge of the cliff, I felt awed, and I felt powerful. At the time of my recovery I often expressed to my therapist that the medicine was working. “No, you are,” she would remind me. “You make the choice every day to take it.” Watching that waterfall and peering into that gorge, I felt the gravity of all the choices I’d made for the sake of my health wash over me, and my knees wobbled, tears springing to my eyes. Heaven was not above me, a place I needed to go. Heaven was a lifestyle I created for myself, in recognition of the fact that I deserved it.

Me, ugly crying in front of The Waterfall.

If I hadn’t found a kind of movement I deeply enjoyed, I wouldn’t be as well as I am today. Moving my body opened up a completely new avenue of wellness that I didn’t know existed. It asked me plainly to reconsider how I was feeding myself, who I was associating with, how I spent my free time, where I put my energy. My journey to recovery has made me the kind of self-aware and radiating-with-health-y person I aspired to but never forced myself to become. Do I experience unpleasant side effects of my medication? Yes. But they do not outweigh the benefits. Would I rather sleep or work more than warm up, work out, cool down, stretch, meditate, and shower? Oh, absolutely. But I’ve also experienced the power and potency of persevering, slowly and steadily, in the name of my own well-being. I’ve hit personal bests on the Peloton by moving my legs when I didn’t think I could move them. I’ve admitted and worked through concepts and ideas with my therapist that I didn’t know could be addressed. I’ve made big, bold, beautiful changes to every aspect of my life in service of wellness- and I’m just getting started.

I didn’t realize it, but when I became interested in wellness in college, I was completely missing out on it’s most critical aspect- embodiment. I was journaling and praying and eating well, sleeping 8 hours a night and doing face masks, but I was experiencing it all through my mind, not my senses. I thought and thought and thought through my problems and worries without ever thinking to hear what my body may have had to say.

I think when we think mental illness, we think mental solution. But the relief, in my experience, comes from that which is physical. Sweat. Pills. Tears. The huge hug from your brother or encouraging card from a friend. The breeze, birdwatching, the rising sun burning its first slant of light into your eyes. Freshly baked bread and a pound of gulf shrimp. The smell of a library book and the crackle of its spine.

The relief comes from the sight of a waterfall pushing itself towards the bottom of a gorge, spraying up sparks of river water that saturate your shirt. Though they smell a little funny, the stains of this water will remind you later in the car that you saw a powerful and utterly natural occurrence today. You watched it happen, alone in a sea of people. You have evidence. You were really there.



Amanda Popovski

Hi, I write about digital minimalism, mindfulness, wellness, productivity, and habit-building.

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