Is Depression the Cause or Result?

If timing and title has you wondering whether this is another political sob fest to avoid, be not afraid. Proceed to read. Unless, of course, you’re avoiding exercise-related sob fests. Which this will be. See, I’m not working out much because I’m tired as hell and it wears me out to run. And the other day, I got asked the question

“Do you think you’re depressed?”

When exercise becomes your antidepressant of choice, what happens when you can't work out?

More than ‘Feeling Down’

I was in my 30’s with three kids under the age of 6 and a spouse who traveled, and I became completely overwhelmed. There were days when I locked myself in the bathroom—my one private space—to sit on the floor while I cried. It was hard to get dressed, to see possibilities in the day ahead, to feel that anything would get better or be worth doing. A friend I’d finally opened up to gently prodded me to the doctor’s office, where I halting admitted that I couldn’t seem to function. My doctor diagnosed clinical depression.

I spent a year taking Zoloft, and the chemicals righted my brain. An unexpected bonus was the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. I fell in love with running—the way it made me feel mentally and physically, the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment it gave, the new social connections and friendships I formed.

That was 20 years ago. I’ve been happily running and working out ever since.

Sure, I’ve had incidents of sadness. Relationship problems, job issues, loss (let’s not even talk Election 2016), and physical injury—like anyone else, these things bring me down. But running and movement in general have always provided solace, a way to process hurt and disappointment. My mind works better when I move regularly.

I’ve never come close to experiencing that overwhelming feeling of despair and despondency again. Until now.

Inactivity’s Vicious Circle

When exercise becomes your antidepressant of choice, what happens when you can't work out?I got the question from my wonderful massage therapist. She always asks for training updates before a session. So she knows my energy has dramatically dropped since August; she knows I’m down to two or three gentle weekly workouts, mostly walking. She knows how sad I am.

I miss working out and yes, that ache makes me profoundly sad. Running these days feels horrible—my body lumbers heavily while energy levels drop quickly. If I were a car, I’d be a big old Lincoln Continental rustily running on one faulty cylinder and mere gas fumes. I can manage 2 miles without breaks if I focus and run slow enough; I’m able to eke out 4 miles by utilizing a run/walk ratio. That’s my longest run since the 10-miler at Davis Mountain Fitness & Training Camp in August.

These days, about 30-45 minutes of easy run/walk hits the sweet spot where exercise and daily activity coexist. It’s a long way from the Paris Marathon in April or taking on a 50K at the Leatherwood Ultra in May.

This fatigue hasn’t just knocked out my running. I haven’t been to Jazzercise in weeks. I’m skipping the Aqua Interval class more often than attending. Months ago, these classes were supplemental, fun workouts on days when I also ran or walked. I used to delight in how many 10,000-step multiples I’d accumulate in a day. Now, I don’t wear my fitness tracker at all.

I’m stuck in a vicious circle. As exercise and general movement time has plummeted, weight has soared. My body feels heavy and puffy while physical fitness slips away. Because I so closely intertwine workouts and socializing, face time with friends has faded; as I slow down and tire more quickly, I am even less likely to join in outings. The worse I feel doing it, the harder it is to push myself to exercise.

Yes, I’m depressed. Who wouldn’t be?

The question is, what do I do about it?

I firmly believe that a daily dose of exercise-induced endorphins would solve everything. My brain is clearly crashing from this current deficit, and running and participating in all the wonderfully active things I enjoy would certainly correct the imbalance. The only thing stopping me from spending time exercising is being tired.

The problem is–nobody seems to know why I’m so fatigued.

  • The sleep study results came back. I showed some gentle snoring when going into REM sleep but that’s not abnormal for someone over 50. I don’t have sleep apnea and my “hygiene” is just fine. The problem isn’t my rest.
  • A nutritionist evaluated my diet. I eat healthy, balanced meals of appropriate amounts with sufficient nutrients. The problem isn’t my fuel. Her only comment: I need to watch my calories during periods when I’m too exhausted to exercise–the drop in activity, especially if I have food cravings, could cause weight gain.
  • My endocrinologist lowered my thyroid medication dosage. It seems to have helped (in the last few weeks, the intensity of my fatigue has lessened), so the problem could be my thyroid. But the new dosage hasn’t eliminated my fatigue. I’m seeing him again and we’ll discuss this more.

When I’m in the office, I’ll also talk to my doctor about depression. Maybe I need the medical boost antidepressants would provide while we sort out this health puzzle. Maybe dealing with one less problem will bring the bigger issue into the foreground.

Maybe, just maybe, depression IS the big problem.

I don’t believe I’d be suffering like this if I were moving, though. So I’m leery–what I don’t need is a Band-Aid covering secondary symptoms and a root condition that’s never fully addressed. Still, I’m glad the question was asked; it needs an answer.

When exercise becomes your antidepressant of choice, what happens when you can't work out?


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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

7 thoughts on “Is Depression the Cause or Result?

  1. Well written blog, Leah! I didn\’t know you were struggling with fatigue. The accompanying sadnes is very understandable. It\’s clear that you\’ve been weeding out the potential root causes and, for that, I\’m very proud of you. You are not letting fatigue and depression hold you down for very long – it\’s clear you are fighting to overcome it! I have always thought of you as a strong woman!
    Thank you for letting your readers into your life and I invite you to lean on AWDAT whenever you feel down. Exercise or no exercise, coffee and chatting with friends is great. I\’ll be traveling but expect to see you at Mozart Friday\’s after Thanksgiving! Keep up the good work!

  2. Oh girl – I\’m sorry you\’re going through this. I know running gives you your \”zing\”. Hopefully the Thyroid Med\’s will give you some relief, until then, don\’t be afraid to take a little chemical reboot I\’m glad you\’ve talked about this. For me when I\’m depressed or anxious, talking about the issue seems to take away it\’s power. You\’ve got this and you\’ll be back on the trail in no time.💗 AMO

    1. Thank you so much, AMO. I\’ve gotten so much positive support since putting this out in the world. You\’re right: I\’d been so hesitant to talk about it with anyone. To be honest, I was ashamed and that\’s isolating.

  3. I completely get where you\’re coming from, exercise has been my salvation and sanity saver for the past 15 years. Lately though, I\’m in too much of a funk to do it and that makes me more depressed. I just started increasing my antidepressant with the hopes that it will give me a small boost of energy and motivation to get me back on track – and back to crossfit and running. Good luck to you and I hope you find the answers soon!

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