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  • Writer's pictureAnjana Rajbhandary

From Pills to Positivity: How Exercise Became My Antidepressant

I gave up antidepressants 5 years ago, and it was the best decision I ever made

It was the year 2020 when I was sitting on my yoga mat. I wasn’t doing yoga, but I was feeling an incredible sense of anxiety over what the world had come to with Covid. I was overwhelmed and knew I had to make a decision. Instead of calling a friend as we were in the middle of the pandemic, so seeing a friend was next to impossible, I decided- I am giving up antidepressants.

I had been on antidepressants for more than a decade, and to be honest, I don’t know why. I had been on Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Prozac, and Zoloft. I had seen a physician in my 20s, and when I told her I was struggling with life (school, relationships, and future), she said I had anxiety and depression and wrote me a prescription. She didn’t recommend any other changes; I made them a part of my everyday life without questioning it. To be honest, being on antidepressants never made me feel better, but I took it every day because a medical provider had recommended it, and I was so desperate.

Last year, I read a study in which one group was given a placebo, and the other was given antidepressants for six to eight weeks. About 20 to 40 people out of 100 who took placebo felt better, and 40 to 60 out of 100 who took antidepressants reported positive changes. Only 20 more people felt better on antidepressants than on placebo.

Did I need antidepressants, or was it the easy way out for my physician, as antidepressants are highly prescribed in the country? According to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 13.2 percent of adults over the age of 18 were on antidepressants. I am sure the number is much higher, as I know so many of my friends are taking one or more antidepressants.

The reason I decided to quit antidepressants is because I wasn’t experiencing any changes. I didn’t feel better or happier; instead, I was dealing with the side effects of irritability, insomnia, dizziness, and sometimes just wanting to sleep all day, depending on what I was on. I know a handful of people who told me that it worked for them, but it didn’t work for me.

I know they can help some people, but in my experience, they were not the right solution for me.

When I decided to give up antidepressants, it was with the intention to find alternative methods of healing that would help my overall health. I started with yoga because I had read and heard that it is good for the mind, body, and soul. To keep myself motivated to do yoga daily, I reached out to my friend, who prioritized exercise for her mental health. Having an accountability buddy has kept me on my exercise routine since 2020. A 2023 study published in the International Journal of Yoga (IJOY) reported that long-term yoga practice does help reduce symptoms of depression. I have been doing yoga regularly since 2020 and though I still can’t contort my body, my mind feels calmer.

In 2020, in addition to yoga to help my mind, I also started using my stationary bike daily to get some cardio. As I was mostly at home, I needed to release some energy. I have always known that exercise is good for you. Still, I wasn’t motivated to exercise just to be thin, but reading about the benefits of cardiovascular workouts sent me on my first successful attempt at regular exercise after reading about all the other health benefits, such as reduction of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (via CDC). However, the most appealing aspect of biking was how it could improve my mental health and mood, and I felt the effects immediately. I was always happier after biking.

With yoga and biking as a part of my mental health routine, I lost some weight and felt better in general — more than I had when I was on antidepressants.

In 2022, I took on the biggest challenge- to start strength training, which I was not a fan of. I was biased because I thought it was not fun, but I had never done it. As I was approaching 40, I knew I had to get my body ready for old age so I could be independent for as long as possible because I knew that we lose muscle mass, our metabolism slows down, and we are more prone to falling as we age and the one thing that could help all that was strength training. The idea of resistance training was scarier than actually doing it.

In February 2022, I did my first strength training exercise (beginner level on the app Sweat) and made sure to make myself do it three times a week. The more I did it, the better I felt, and I felt stronger. I wasn’t weighing myself in the process but my friends who saw me after a few months told me I looked stronger and toner. I started to notice more muscle definition that I never had before. Now, I can do pushups without losing my breath, and my goal is to do one pull-up at some point.

When I decided to give up antidepressants, I didn’t have a guaranteed success plan. Still, I knew I would make lifestyle changes to see if adding movement as a daily part of my life would make any changes. It has affected me mentally and physically more than taking antidepressants.

Nowadays, I make it a point to strength train three to four times a week, and on other days, I bike. I also do yoga every evening, even if it is for 10 minutes because it helps me to recalibrate. I am not always motivated to exercise daily, but it is a part of my daily routine. It is a part of my discipline.

Working out has been the best antidepressant for me because movement is medicine.

There was a time when I used to turn to a glass of red wine after a stressful day, and now I turn to restorative yin to calm my mind. Movement has become a part of my life, and it will remain so as long as I am capable. My friend and I still message each other daily with the emoji or emojis of the exercise we did that day, and we also allow days for rest because that is also important.

Before, exercise used to feel like a chore, but now it is fun; it makes me happy. That’s something antidepressants could never make me feel.

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