When Michelle Holmes had a nervous breakdown, regular exercise became a lifeline on her road to recovery. The County Durham mum-of-two talks to KAREN WILSON in the first of a two-part series on how exercise can help alleviate depression
Michelle realised her character traits made her a typical candidate for a breakdown. “People who are lazy and don’t care don’t get stressed because they’re not bothered,” she says. “It’s people you wouldn’t expect to suffer from stress and depression, who you think are go-getters, who are really upbeat and driven.”
She also learnt to spot the early warning signs and triggers, taking responsibility for her predicament so she won’t repeat the old patterns of behaviour.
“You can’t blame other people for making you poorly,” she says. “But you do need to tell somebody who can actually make a difference.”
Her counsellor also recommended exercise, as the release of feel good endorphins would make her feel better. But since going to the gym was a frightening ordeal, Michelle decided to try an outdoor boot camp.
“A lot of everyday events become too much for you,” explains Michelle. “I became very claustrophobic. I only felt safe at home or outside. I couldn’t go to the gym because I couldn’t actually go through the doors on my own.
“As it’s all in parks and open public places, boot camp was the ideal place to go. My husband could come with me, even though he didn’t take part and the children would play football nearby. I could see him so that made me feel more secure. If I was having a wobbly moment, we could just go home.”
Some work friends recommended No Lippy Boot Camp in Roker, but there was also a class in Chester-le-Street and Washington. “They were all really tall and slim so I didn’t want to come along as the token fat friend!,” she laughs. “But when I arrived it made me realise there were all ages, all shapes, all sizes and all fitness levels.”
Although Michelle admits the first session was really tough, even for someone who used to go the gym, she started to love it. The social side, in particular, was a revelation. Before the breakdown Michelle had been going to Step class for months but admits she didn’t really know anybody.
“Boot camp is totally different from any exercise class I’d ever been to,” she says. “All the people made you feel really welcome. They do lots of activities in small teams – in pairs, fours or sixes – and there’s a bit of competition. You feel like you’re all in it together. It made me want to go more. It’s even improved my complexion.”
Now Michelle attends boot camp three times a week. And while her main motivation was never weight loss, she’s lost two stone in the last year going from a size 20 to a size 16.
Encouraged by this slow and steady weight loss, she’s also made tweaks to her diet. “I haven’t cut anything out entirely,” she says. “For long-term health you don’t want to feel you’re deprived of anything. So I’ve changed the way I cook things, making tomato-based curries and pastas rather than using cream and cheese. I’ve also bought smaller plates – the size between dinner plates and tea plates. And when I bake cakes I’ll do a shallow tray bake instead of using a deep tin, then I’ll cut them into smaller squares.”
Now she wants to lose another two stone this year and has joined Slimming World too.
“Losing weight was a by-product, I just wanted to get a lot leaner and stronger,” she says. “I ran seven miles recently. I couldn’t even run 700 yards before. I’m even doing the Race for Life at Penshaw this summer.”
In addition to the exercise, Michelle is now finding more time to enjoy herself. “Every day you need to release your inner child – whatever makes you feel good,” she says.
“I sometimes put on music and dance around in the lounge and sing to my heart’s content.
“You need to focus more on yourself.”
Michelle’s new mantra has also reignited her passion for cookery.
As well as becoming a Pampered Chef consultant, she hopes to eventually set up a business offering cookery lessons.
She’s already used her friends and their teenage daughters as guinea pigs before Christmas, teaching them how to make a full Indian banquet.
Michelle has since returned to work, initially in the same role but with a lot more support.
After a restructure she now has a slightly different role and works 32 hours a week. She’s finally learned to say no, and says she’s not under the same level of pressure she was before.
“It feels very positive about the future now and counselling has made a huge difference,” she says. “The cooking and the exercise are the things that brought me out of my depression and I feel brilliant.”
Next week: Andrea Pearce tells how exercise helped her cope with depression after losing her best friend to cancer.
:: MANY studies have shown that regular exercise can help reduce anxiety, boost self-esteem and even alleviate depression. Since the early 1900s, there have been over 100 studies examining the relationship between exercise and depression, with the positive effects confirmed by five meta-analytic reviews in the 1990s looking back at the studies done so far. They showed that the anti-depressant effect of exercise begins as early as the first session and carries on beyond the end of the exercise programme.