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Robin D. Stone is a New York City based psychotherapist, coach and consultant who works to help you achieve your most optimal self. 

How Walking Saved Me from Despair

 
Down in front with my old Zumba crew.  

Down in front with my old Zumba crew.
 

I have never considered myself much of a fitness buff.

Family and friends, on the other hand, would beg to differ. I’ve been called a fanatic, been told that my vacations are “Outward Bound” adventures, and dubbed by my niece “that crazy health lady.”

What I am is a mover. I walk, jog, run and golf. I vibe to P90x and 20 Second Fitness. Back in the day, Tae-Bo was my thing. Before that, Jane Fonda (I’ve still got my three-part step). And way before that, I taught low-impact aerobics at a local Living Well Lady. I don’t like to sweat, but I’ve always I loved how I feel when I move my body.

Intellectually, I know how exercise boosts those feel-good chemicals called endorphins. After an intense workout session, I’ve even felt the “runner’s high” that we’ve read about. 

But it wasn’t until when I needed it most – when I was so down and out that it was hard to get out of bed and get dressed for the day – that I saw how exercise could lift you up from the depths of deep despair.

Cancer was killing my husband. The doctors referred us to hospice. My son was 10 and writing letters to his future self to come back in time and bring the cure. After a stressful day of work and tending to family, I found that nights became my friend. Before I rested, and as I said prayers for comfort, for peace, and for the strength to go on, I started walking on my treadmill. Almost every night I walked. Sometimes at 8 p.m., sometimes I got out of bed at midnight. And then I slept hard. On weekends I walked with girlfriends and at the rise-and-shine hour of 7.

I asked my therapist about medication. I hated feeling so bad. She didn’t dissuade me but she did ask, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” I told her about all the walking, and confided that I was worried. Was it an addiction? Who walks at midnight? Keep going, my therapist assured me. I’m glad she did.

These days Americans are all too quick to reach for a prescription – after painkillers and cholesterol-lowering meds, antidepressants are the country’s most-prescribed drug. A part of the reason, as in this recent report, is that doctors are so quick to prescribe meds when movement might be enough. When you are feeling low, it’s important to know that you have a choice.

After my husband made his transition, I added meditation and golfing to the mix of what I was doing to take care of myself, and I walked and walked and walked. At some point, an older woman passed me on the neighborhood track, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks bouncing with each step. More encouraged than outdone, I started to trot. And so I became a runner. Growing up with chronic asthma, I had always told myself that vigorous exercise was beyond me. But once I started, and my asthma stayed in check, I saw how challenging exercise bolstered not only my lung capacity and my endurance, but also my spirits.

Walking gave me the motivation to get up and go on. I had a son to parent, a life to lead and dreams to fulfill. Running gave me the confidence to do more than I thought I could. Moving works. You may need more if you are down and depressed, but exercise is a good place to start. Studies show it, and I’ve lived it.