"Oh, you have depression? You should really go out more."
"Why don't you take up a sport or something?"
"You should start working out!"
And yes, maybe I should. Research shows that it could help out. But it's not as simple as it seems.
When you tell people, as a mental health patient, about your issues, a recommendation of some form of exercise or yoga is usually the response. Of course, this comes from a well-intentioned place, and we do appreciate that you are trying to help. However, we're also tired of hearing this, due to several reasons. So I've decided to clear some misconceptions and provide some awareness regarding the same.
Exercise Won't Help Everyone
Of course, exercise is good for your body and can have benefits for the brain as well. However, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution, which many people seem to think is the case.
Research has shown a correlation between exercise and an improvement in mental status, at levels roughly equivalent to those of prescription medication; between 40-66%. Hence, there is a very possible chance that the person you're recommending exercise to is part of the other 60-34%.
It just may not help, and the stigma around psychiatric drugs only makes this worse: it's often hard to seek the appropriate help we may need because of the prejudice we've learnt in regard to psychiatrists and prescription medication. Of course, it has negative side effects, unlike exercise (in most cases), but it could be the only solution for a particular person. I'm one of those people, and I can assure you, I'd much rather deal with the side effects of these medicines than helplessly suffer from debilitating mental illness.
In other words, exercise may be able to replace medication for some people, but that isn't the case for everyone.
Mental Illness Can Make Exercise Much More Difficult, Or Downright Impossible
As you may (or may not) know, no two patients of a disorder such as depression, anxiety, etc have the same experience. There are often two broad categories used to describe the kind of symptoms a patient may be experiencing: high-functioning and low-functioning.
Although a generalisation, usually high-functioning patients of mental illness are much more capable of going about their daily routines and work as compared to low-functioning patients. Rather than this reflecting the severity of their condition, it is a case of the disorder manifesting itself differently amongst different people.
So while a high-functioning depressive individual may be able to go to work, eat, shower, and live a relatively "typical" routine, low-functioning patients may not even be able to get out of bed or bring themselves to move. This is not merely laziness, for if it were, it wouldn't be an issue requiring medical attention or help. Depression can often kill any will, motivation, energy, or interest you may otherwise experience. Patients often lose interest in even things they are passionate about, as it's common to literally stop feeling positive emotions at all.
In the latter case, to be able to bring yourself to go exercise can seem like climbing the Mount Everest without any gear. When you can't even bring yourself to shower, clean your bed, despite the growing disgust you feel for the uncleanliness, it can be next to impossible to go jog for half an hour.
Moreover, the fear of judgement and social anxiety is not only real but can be an entire barrier in itself. As a frustrated Twitter user put it,
“Oh how true this is! You're already anxious so go do something you're not good at in front of a tonne [sic] of people you don't know! No thanks.”
There are several other barriers that make simply "going out and being active" damn near impossible. Each person's circumstances are different, and it's important to be considerate of that and try to understand them before giving, usually unsolicited, highly common advice.
We've Heard It Way Too Many Times
I mean, I don't even know how to elaborate on that.
So instead, let me tell you how you could express a more understanding and helpless approach:
You can ask the person if they would like you to accompany them to said exercise or activity that they may enjoy.
Tell them it's okay when they're not able to exercise as per goals or schedules they've set: trust me, they're probably already beating themselves up over it.
And, most importantly, just tell them you're there for them and hear them out. Encourage their good habits, be gentle with your discouragement towards the opposite. Tell them that they can get through this, and it'll be okay- even if they don't believe it, hearing can often still be helpful.
Remember, you may not know what another person is going through, even when you think you do.