Running as Therapy for Depression with Nita Sweeney

Nita Sweeney is the bestselling wellness author of Depression Hates a Moving Target, You Should Be Writing, and Make Every Move a Meditation. She is also an ultramarathoner, meditator, mindfulness coach, writing practice zealot, mental health advocate, dog mom, retired attorney and the retired publisher of Write Now Columbus. Her latest book, A Daily Dose of Now, was released in October 2023. In this interview, we discuss her Depression Hates a Moving Target and how running can serve as therapy for depression.

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Depression Hate a Moving Target by Nita Sweeney, a book about running as therapy for depression

Greg: Can you tell me a little about your physical background before the journey that led to this book? Did you grow up playing sports or engaging in physical activity?

Nita: Pardon the stereotype, but I was a couch potato, the kid chosen last for any team sport. I did ride horses and played flute in the marching band, both of which are physical activities, and I grew up on a farm so I baled hay, shoveled manure, built fences and walked long miles in the woods of our fifty acres. But I did not play sports, and I did not consider myself athletic in the least.

I’ve always felt clumsy, the whole two left feet thing. And I fell off horses often. In gym class in seventh grade, playing softball in the outfield, of course I attempted to catch a fly ball without a glove, because why would I need one—I was never going to catch a ball. The ball hit my hand so hard that I broke two fingers. And no, I didn’t catch it. But I did well in marching band. I could memorize a routine and the music and follow it well. Marching band was my jam in high school.

I also attempted softball in college on a local team, but I was so bad that they always put me in the outfield and one day I was trying to catch a fly ball and it hit me between the eyes and knocked me down. After that they decided I would be a better score keeper.

I enjoyed dancing Nia, a style that draws from Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, jazz dance, modern dance, Duncan dance, yoga, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais. I even earned a black belt in Nia, which authorized me to teach. While I enjoyed the movement and the music, I wasn’t up to the responsibility of leading classes. When my favorite teacher moved on to other adventures, I stopped.

We’ve had the assortment of equipment in our basement, from the mini-trampoline to yoga mat to the stretchy bands to the ankle weights to the Bosu ball to the aerobic videos. I had a Buns of Steel period in my life when those videos were my thing. But nothing ever stuck, until running.

Greg: When you first started running, what was it about running that made it seem like good therapy for depression?

Nita: I didn’t really think of it as therapy for depression when I first started running. I just knew my friend seem to smile and be happy when she posted her workouts. I was neither smiling nor happy. I wanted what she had.

Nita Sweeney, author of Depression Hate a Moving Target
Nita Sweeney

Greg: It sounds like you didn’t enjoy running when you first started. What made you stick with it? Was it just the hope that you would eventually enjoy it like your friend seemed to? What made you decide to run a marathon?

Nita: Oh, but I did enjoy it. That’s what’s so odd about having mental illness, at least for me. My mind tries to convince me that what’s happening isn’t real. As I ran back and forth in the ravine with the dog, my head was filled with thoughts of “You can’t do this. It’s too hard. Go back to the house and take a nap.” Meanwhile, I was actually doing it! I learned to pay attention to my body which was loving running. When I turned my focus toward how strong I felt running and how much more energy I had when I ran, it became easier to see the naysayer thoughts as an antiquated protective mechanism. That part of my mind was trying to protect me, but it hadn’t kept up with the pleasant things happening in my arms, legs, lungs and heart.

As for the marathon, once I’m into something, I’m all in. Before I’d even run my first 5K, I saw a 26.2 sticker on the back of another friend’s car. I’d seen those stickers before I began to run, but thought they referenced bible verses or some club to which I didn’t belong. When it clicked that my friend had done what seemed an impossible feat—twenty-six point two miles all at one go—I asked him about it. Even though I was a decade older than him and probably weighed fifty pounds more than he did and looked nothing like what I thought a runner should look like, he was so kind. “If you train for it, you can do it,” he said. I tucked that away and continued to train for my first race.

Nita Sweeney, author of Depression Hate a Moving Target
Nita Sweeney and her dog Scarlet

Greg: What was the biggest challenge you faced while training for or running your first marathon? Was it depression or something else?

Nita: My mind has always been and probably always will be my biggest challenge. It seriously is trying to kill me. I don’t say that lightly. I’m not joking. If I’m not on the proper medication, engaging in good therapy, staying active physically, meditating regularly to retrain my mind and writing to process my thoughts, one day my mind may win.

Greg: Is there something unique about running, or do you believe other physical practices can act as therapy for depression?

Nita: Numerous scientific studies have shown that movement of any form can be an effective therapy for depression. If you raise your heart rate, the happy brain chemicals begin to flow. Movement also provides a sense of achievement from doing what you set out to do or reaching a goal. All those things improve mood. It doesn’t have to be running.

But the key for me was to find a movement form I would continue. I had tried so many different things and never stayed with one. I think running works for me because it can either be solitary or in a community. I can do it hard or easy. I can make it fun or make it intense. There’s also something about being outdoors, the fresh air, sunlight and sounds and smells of nature, that makes it therapeutic. I don’t get that in a gym. Other people love gyms and if that works for them, great. And sometimes I need a challenge and a schedule. A running training plan helps with that, and a race I can work toward gives me a goal. The bottom line is to find something you’ll do, and that you’ll keep doing, even when you don’t feel like doing it.

Greg: What most surprised you during the events you describe in the book?

Nita: The running community blew me away. I had no idea there were these other seemingly normal, ordinary looking, slightly crazy, wonderful people out there who would support me and others in our running adventures. And that is still true. They’re amazing.

I was also amazed by what my middle-aged body could do. For the most part, if I did the training, followed the plan and put in the work, I got the results. Yes, I have been injured. No, I have not earned a personal best at every race. But when I take care of it, my body continues to do what I ask. That still stuns me.

Visit Nita Sweeney’s website to learn more about her and her work. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.