Fitness, Ageing, & Depression by Victor Gilbert

I experienced my first debilitating Depression 44 years ago when I was a 27-year-old lecturer at a College of FE in Hemel Hempstead. I made an appointment to be seen by a GP and, although ashamed of the state I was in, managed to tell him what was going on with me. When he mentioned a medication, I asked if I could also see a Psychiatrist. I shall never forget his answer: ‘The trouble with you is that you’ve been watching too many TV programmes lately!’ He saw me out with a prescription for amphetamines – a drug, he explained, that would soon make me feel better!

From that inauspicious beginning, I’ve been battling my whole life with Depression, and for the last 20 years with Bipolar Disorder, which used to be known as Manic Depression. Until I was prescribed Lithium seven years ago, no medication had worked for me, so I tried anything and everything to recover. Searching for a ‘cure’ took me into psychotherapy, group therapy, resigning my post as a Principal, leaving my wife and family, and living in spiritual communities in India, Europe, and Australia.

I have learnt a number of lessons over these 44 years most of them resulting from looking at myself, and taking responsibility for who and what I am. A really important one was to stop blaming others for what is happening to me.

What lessons are important when we are looking at Depression in the later years? I think it is important to acknowledge that the condition we are in when we are old results, in the vast majority of cases, from how we have been living our lives. I spend a great deal of time on a rowing machine in three gyms where a lot of old people exercise. The bad news is self-evident – a lifetime of neglect or abuse exerts severe limitations on our well-being and health as old people. The good news is that recent research from Uppsala University shows that men starting at 50, who exercise three hours a week at sport or heavy gardening, lived 2.3 years longer than sedentary men.

Co-incidentally I was 50 when I discovered that jogging helped me to deal with Depression. I’d have to push myself to go out (overcoming the ‘it’s not worth bothering’ state of mind present with Depression); but it wouldn’t be long before I’d begin to feel better; and I’d finish the run generally feeling good mentally as well as physically. Later in the day the Depression would again descend on me, but the memory of feeling good somehow activated me to go out next day – in spite of all the negative discouragements present in my mind. In the past there would have come a time when the balance tipped towards debilitating Depression, down I would go and again end up in the misery of severe Depression. In that state, where even getting out of bed takes tremendous effort, going jogging was out of the question. However it soon became clear that regular exercise, when I was up to it, produced longer and longer gaps between the severe depressive episodes. Cathy Ross, cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation said, ‘Being active at any age helps control your weight, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and will provide long term benefits for your heart health and general health.’

An important discovery for me was to realise that fitness is an essential ingredient for my mental, as well as my physical health. I have not found that it solves anything in itself, what it does do is create a secure foundation on which I am able to deal with problems as they arise. If I am more present and alert; if I have more energy; if I have developed a habit of not giving up, then whether it is Depression, an emotional or psychological problem, a physical illness, or even a financial problem then my fitness helps me to deal with it effectively, and not collapse under it. This is particularly important in Depression for inertia is at its very core and giving up is a common reaction to difficulties.

Problems with my hip and knee joints now deny me the exhilarating experience of jogging in nature. However, these problems have taught me the importance of stretching in an exercise programme to develop flexibility, and hence mobility. These are important at any age but particularly so when we are old.

Where there is the will, a way appears, so a few years ago I discovered working out on an indoor rowing machine not only did not impact on my joints, but was enjoyable too. At 71, I’m found most days in a gym training for rowing competitions. The wonder of Scotland is that it costs me nothing to get there on the buses. The wonder of Midlothian is that it costs me nothing to use their Leisure Centres, and I get free entry into all classes before 4.30pm. Twice a week I attend Pilates classes taught by an excellent and enthusiastic teacher. Once a week I go for a Power Plate vibration workout to improve strength and flexibility. In the better weather I’m seen rowing on the water.

I continue to see myself as a depressive, but I’ve discovered that taking effective medication, living a healthy mental and physical lifestyle, and importantly staying fit, means Depression no longer runs me, or sits like a ‘black dog’ on my life.