Pam Hogan remembers the times when depression got the best of her.

Pam Hogan remembers the times when depression got the best of her.

"Winter used to be bad," she says. "I'd feel like I just couldn't get out of bed."

When some friends invited her to join them at an exercise class for something called Zumba, she balked. It had been years since she'd tried to do anything like a fitness class. But it was free, so she went.

"I really thought I was gonna have a heart attack and die," she recalls. "I was so out of shape."

She discovered she liked the Latin-flavored, dance-style exercise program that's become a hit around the world since it emerged in Colombia back in the 1990s. The combination of music, dance and movement reached her in a way that none of her previous attempts at exercise or fitness could match.

"It was the first thing I ever tried that I actually liked," she says.

Hogan's path to an overweight mid-life is a familiar one for millions of American women. She gained weight after she had her children, then took a sedentary job. By the time she was 49, she weighed about 200 pounds.

"When I first started (Zumba), I could barely make it through (the hour-long class)," she says. "I was so fat and out of shape."

After a few months of twice-a-week exercise, she'd lost just a few pounds. Her instructor, Robin McMillin of Rogue Fit Solutions in Phoenix, encouraged her to think about what she ate and how she ate. She realized her family ate lots of red meat and way too much sugar.

"I always had cookies in the house," she says. "I always baked. We had pancakes and waffles, biscuits, great big ol' steaks, sausage, bacon ..."

McMillin encouraged her to cut back on meats and processed foods, and eat more fruits and vegetables.

"She teaches you sustainable ways of healthy eating, so you can continue to do it on your own," Hogan says. "You do lose significant weight because you're changing your eating habits and eating more fruits, vegetables and nutrient-dense foods. She has people keep track of what they're eating and she looks at (the food diary) to help them fine-tune their dietary habits. My husband (Shawn Hogan) recently went through that program and lost quite a bit of weight and really changed his eating habits."

As her eating habits changed, and she continued to exercise, the pounds came off faster.

"I started feeling so much better that I wanted to keep doing it," she says. "It's relaxed and comfortable and it's been fun."

Some 16 months after she started exercising, Hogan says she's lost 60 pounds.

"I went from a size 18 to a size 10," she says. "I can shop anywhere. I don't have to wear plus sizes."

And the depression? That melted away, too, as she exercised five days a week, and sometimes six.

"I feel less negative," she says. "I still have slow days, but I don't have those days where I can't move and can't get out of bed.

"I'm not as grumpy, either," she adds. "I feel happier and more relaxed.

"I feel better mentally," she says. "My head feels better. I feel good, and I feel accomplished."

There's scientific research to back her up. A 1999 Duke University randomized controlled trial found that depressed people who participated in an aerobic exercise plan improved as much as those treated with an antidepressant. Other researchers have obtained similar results, but their studies have involved relatively few people compared to the trials for prescription antidepressant drugs that can earn billions for their manufacturers.

No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic says exercise can help relieve the symptoms of depression. While the mechanism isn't fully understood, researchers think even moderate physical activity releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that produce "runner's high." Increased movement may also reduce chemicals in the immune system that can worsen depression symptoms.

Physical activity provides psychological benefits, too, the Mayo Clinic says. Achieving even small exercise goals can raise self-confidence, and going for a walk or a swim can divert the mind from the negative thoughts that so often accompany depression. Exercise classes offer an opportunity for social interactions that can provide a mood boost, too.

People who exercise also may feel better because they realize that they're actually trying to do something to cope, rather than brooding.

Hogan's physical health improved, too, as she lost weight. She had been taking drugs to control high blood pressure, but as she lost weight her blood pressure came down and she was able to stop taking the medicine.

"My doctor was so surprised and pleased," she says. "She'd been telling me to exercise for years, and I always said, 'I don't have time.' Now I make time."

Hogan says she plans to keep active for the rest of her life.

"I know if I don't keep it up I'm going to go back to where I was, and I don't want to do that."

Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at