Here’s the science – plus our interview with a personal trainer
If you are a gay man, there’s a good chance that somewhere along the way, you’ve struggled with anxiety or depression – or both.
Can you relate?
In truth, the clinical research suggests that gay men are twice more likely to be impacted with a mood related challenge when compared with our heterosexual counterparts.
There is a myriad of reasons for this, including discrimination to homophobia to harmful stereotypes. Throw in body image issues negatively impact self-esteem and it’s easy to see how it all takes its toll.
And the external factors mentioned above influencing anxiety and depression among gay men doesn’t include other causes, such as historical family patterns related to mental health.
As a coping mechanism, many of us turn to medications, like SSRI’s, to help balance our moods and lift spirits. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach, meds often have side effects.
“Body image issues negatively impact self-esteem”
What kind of side effects?
The answer to that question is unique to each person. Some men complain of weight gain. Others talk about a decreased sex drive. And more than a few struggle with being able to achieve an erection or ejaculate.
Sounds fun, huh?
The good news is there are natural approaches to fighting anxiety and depression that are clinically proven to be effective. Specifically, we’re talking about strength training. The current research suggests that symptoms can be ameliorated by as much as 50%.
And here’s the thing – you don’t need to become a muscle wolf to realize benefits. By hitting the weights just a few times a week, you can do a lot to help chase away the blues and create a more positive, healthy outlook.
FYI: We’re not suggesting you yank yourself off your anti-depressants and just use a barbell instead. But was are saying that strength training, when combined with other wellness approaches, can yield amazing results.
In an effort to help readers with these issues, GPB spoke with Michael Elder, a Chicago personal trainer who specializes in working with gay men.
Check this out!
How have you seen strength training help clients with depression?
I’ve seen it help in a dramatic way. Over the years, I have trained many clients who have suffered from a mix of anxiety and depression. Strength training, I believe, has had a profoundly positive impact on all of them.
For one thing, it helps them to feel better physically, which can have a very positive impact on the mind as well. For another thing, it allows them to set new goals.
Related: How to survive sexual dry spells
Striving for those goals keeps them accountable to themselves. Achieving those goals provides a wonderful sense of self- achievement. Overall, it builds healthy behaviors which can have a dramatic and on- going positive impact in their lives.
What do you say gay men who live with depression but lack motivation to engage in physical activity?
For some of them, I recommend starting out lightly. They don’t need to participate in a bodybuilding competition or run a marathon. I would encourage them to do at least 20 minutes of physical activity 3-4 times a week.
It could be as simple as taking a walk around the neighborhood. If they are able to maintain this, I would recommend increasing their exercise little by little until they start to feel more comfortable with it.
Related: Gay men, self-esteem & body image
Most of the time, I have witnessed people wanting to increase their physical activity because of the way it makes them feel. I also ask them to at least commit to a certain period of time for training, maybe 2-3 weeks.
It’s usually that initial first step that is hard for people. But once they cross that initial hurdle, I usually see their motivation increase. Just starting seems to be half the battle.
What are some realistic goals for gay men who are just beginning a workout program?
I try to get my new clients to focus on short term goals rather than long term ones, at least in the beginning. If it is someone who is overweight, I try to get them to focus on losing between 1-3 pounds per week, which is a very healthy and realistic goal.
If it someone who is trying to build strength, I like to focus on their strength improvements, no matter how large they are.
Long term goals are good as well, but I find that if the new clients focus too much on them rather than the short term goals, they tend to get disappointed when they don’t achieve those goals fast enough, and that can have a negative impact on motivation.
What do you see as the top two or three reasons people quit a training program, even though they know it is good for them in the long run?
As I suggested above, too much focus on long- term goals can be a factor. Not being able to achieve those goals fast enough can lead to frustration and cause people to burn out.
Also, many times I have noticed that it is the unforeseen experiences in life that can lead to people discontinuing their training. Whether it is a health scare, or a death in the family, certain things will always come up that will cause someone to stop training for a certain period of time.
That is usually when lack of motivation comes back into play. I always encourage people to jump right back on the bandwagon as soon as possible, but sometimes these events can be a limiting factor on exercise and motivation.
Have you ever worked with doctors or other health care providers to help coordinate wellness activities for a client?
Yes. I have had doctors refer their patients to me for the sole purpose of treating depression. Most doctors these days understand the vital importance of exercise, not just on the physical body, but also on the mind.
I am very grateful to be able to help these people doing what I love to do.
After doing this for nearly 20 years, I am convinced it is the best possible preventative medicine for everyone.
How often should someone who is experiencing depression try to exercise?
As often as possible, at least 3-4 times per week. However, as I suggested above it doesn’t have to be extreme. It can start out with light physical activity that is enjoyable.
The idea is to get people moving and to eventually build their strength and endurance. Training these people into the ground right off the bat can lead to frustration and burn- out, and that is certainly not what I want.
Can you suggest any basic, physical activities that can help with depression?
Just walking is one of the best things you can do. Set aside time every day (mornings are usually best) and just walk. If you can walk outside, that’s even better.
Nature tends to get people out of their heads and brings about a sense of calm. But it can really be any activity that you enjoy (swimming, biking, sports, etc.). If it helps you feel better, it’s working!
–end of interview–
GPB would like to thank Michael Elder for his time. If you are a gay man who struggles with anxiety and/or depression, talk to your doctor. Sometimes, mood issues can be related to biological causes that can only be determined through specialized testing.
We’ve featured a book here as well that further explores the unique relationship between exercise and mood. Hope you find useful!