Young woman sitting on a couch with her knees hugged to her chest looking depressed.

How to Get Motivated to Exercise When You are Depressed

The holiday season is here once again!  For many, the holidays are a wonderful time of year – full of food, family, and happy memories.  However, for individuals suffering from depression and anxiety, the holidays can be a very challenging time.

As holidays approach, most people find their stress rising and their ability to cope fade away.  To add insult to injury, as we move towards winter, we are exposed to less natural light.  This can trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD), otherwise known as the “winter blues”.  Symptoms of SAD include feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and loss of interest in activities that you typically enjoy.

Fortunately, there are ways to help you manage your depression during the holidays.  One of the best ways to combat depression is with exercise.  Some of the many positive effects of exercise on depression include:

  • Improved mood
  • Increased energy
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved concentration
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Better sleep

The good news is, you don’t need a lot of exercise to feel a difference!  Research shows that as little as one hour of exercise per week can improve mood and ease the symptoms of depression. That is less than 10 minutes of activity per day!

Sounds great, right?  Of course, anyone that has experienced depression knows that this is easier said than done.  Depression saps you of your motivation and energy, and can send you into a seemingly endless loop that sounds something like this…

I know I need to exercise because it will help my depression and make me feel better, but I can’t get moving because I’m depressed! 

These feelings of knowing that exercise can help, but feeling unable to take action can add to anxiety and stress.  Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take that can help you break the endless loop of self-doubt and begin to add exercise into your life.

Change Your Mindset

The first step in getting moving, is changing the way you think about exercise.  The word “exercise” sounds like work.  It sounds like a task to be accomplished or a chore to be done. In other words, it’s something “extra” you have to fit in to your life.  When you are depressed and have no motivation or energy, the last thing you want to do is add one more thing to your to-do list!

So, start by not thinking about it as exercise at all.  Change your mindset to think of it as simply, movement.  Moving your body is a natural part of life.  By shifting your mental focus from exercise to merely moving your body, you remove the burden of extra work and can begin to appreciate how good it feels to just move.

It is important to find movement that feels good to your body.  Movement should be associated with positive energy and feelings, never discomfort or pain.  If you have physical limitations, find movement that you can do that does not exacerbate existing conditions or injuries.

Everyone’s body is different, so it may take some experimentation to find movement that works for you.  It may be slow and flowing, like yoga, stretching, or tai chi. Or, it may be short and intense, like punching a heavy bag. Or, it may be simple and relaxed like walking.  Remember, any movement that feels good to your body is good for your soul.

Start Where You Are Today

Depression has an ugly way of making you feel like the current version of yourself is not acceptable.  It strips you of your confidence and keeps you from taking that first step forward.  For example, below are some common thoughts you might have when you are depressed.

I would start exercising if only…

…I could get out of bed.

…it wasn’t so cold and miserable outside.

…I wasn’t so anxious around other people.

Don’t let these feelings stop you from taking those first steps to get moving.  Start where you are today and work from there.  Wherever you are today, however you feel, start there and take one step forward.

If you can’t get out of bed, stretch or do some simple yoga poses right in your bed.  If the thought of leaving the house is overwhelming, walk a lap around the house or walk up and down a flight of stairs.  If the thought of having to interact with others makes you anxious, stay home and use an exercise video or online workout that has a movement and instruction style that is a good fit for you.

Create a Safe, Accessible Space to Move

Individuals with depression constantly battle feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.  Therefore, it is important that you find a space where you feel comfortable and safe to move without feeling anxious or judged.  This space should be easily accessible to you and provide you with enough room to safely move.  It may be in your own home, at a gym or recreation facility, in your neighborhood, or at a favorite outdoor space like a park or trail.

You should always feel positive and supported in your space.  That means avoiding environments

  • that are highly competitive.
  • provoke an anxiety response.
  • lead to any feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt.
  • where people are critical and unsupportive.

Find Your Support

One of the best things you can do to help yourself find the motivation to move more, is to connect with others for support.  Research shows that positive social support, can decrease stress, increase motivation and improve overall mental health.

There are several ways that you can connect with others and get the support you need.  Pick the option(s) that work best for you based on where you are today.

Meet-Up with a Friend

Schedule a date with someone to meet up and do something active.  This could be a partner, friend, co-worker, or anyone that you enjoy spending time with.   Having a time planned to meet someone can be the motivation you need to get up and get moving.  Just make sure that whomever you choose is supportive, never competitive or critical.

Join an Online Community

If you suffer from social anxiety or do not have anyone in your life right now that can fully support you, consider joining an online community.  Fortunately, there are thousands of options available online.  Just as with your in-person relationships, it is important that you find an online community that fits you.   Take some time to explore different groups to find one that meets your needs.  Your community should be inclusive, supportive, and committed to helping you become healthier.

Team Up with Your Pet

Support doesn’t have to come in human form.  Exercising with your pet is another way to get the support you need to get moving.  Animals are source of unconditional love and support, making them perfect workout partners.  As an added bonus, research has found that interacting with animals has numerous benefits, including:

  • Improving mood by boosting levels of serotonin and dopamine.
  • Reducing levels of anxiety and stress.
  • Increasing motivation.
  • Fostering a sense of purpose and improving self-esteem.

If you don’t have a pet, don’t worry!  Consider volunteering at a local animal shelter as a dog walker or playing with the animals.  There are plenty of homeless animals that would appreciate your time and affection.

Keep it Simple

One of the keys to adding movement into your life when you are depressed is to make it as easy as possible.  Depression can make even the smallest tasks seem overwhelming.  So, take the stress away by keeping it simple and focus on minimizing the effort to move.  Give yourself permission to take the easy road.  If you don’t feel like getting dressed, exercise in your pajamas.  If you normally go to the gym, stay home and do a workout video.

Set Micro-Goals

Another way to simplify is by setting micro-goals, that is breaking up the experience into ridiculously small pieces.  Studies show that breaking down larger tasks into smaller pieces is the best way to accomplish a goal.  This is because every time we accomplish a goal, our brain reacts by releasing dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical.  This good feeling motivates us to continue on, accomplishing more while improving our overall mood.

Here is an example of how you might use micro-goals to encourage yourself to move.

  • I will put on my socks and sneakers.
  • I will go to the kitchen and fill my water bottle and drink.
  • I will walk in a path between the kitchen, the living room, and the hallway for 5 laps.
  • I give myself the permission to stop after 5 laps. If I am feeling good, I will do 5 more laps.
  • When I am done, I will sit in my favorite chair.
  • I will remove my socks and sneakers.
  • I will drink the rest of my water.
  • I will relax for at least 5 minutes.

Use a Timer

Breaking the inertia associated with depression is usually the hardest part.  If we can find a way to just get started and get moving, everything else becomes easier.  One way to help break the inertia is to use a timer to set time-based micro-goals.  Begin by setting small time increments of no more than 5 minutes.  Commit to moving until the timer finishes.

If 5 minutes seems like too much, start with 1 minute.  Also, remind yourself that you are always the one in control.  Before you start, give yourself permission to stop at any time without feeling guilty.  Remember, any movement is better than none at all.

Connect with Something You Love

Movement should always be a pleasant experience.  However, when you are depressed, it can often be hard to connect to the good feelings you get from moving your body.  One tip for helping to create a positive association to physical activity is to connect the activity to something that you enjoy.  For example, if you enjoy music, create a playlist of your favorite songs that you only listen to while you move.  Some other options might include watching favorite TV show or listening to an audiobook during your workout.

You are much more likely to start moving and stay moving when you connect physical activity to something you enjoy.  So, think about what you love and get moving!

Go Outside

Whenever possible, take your activity outside.  Exercising outdoors has additional benefits to indoor exercise.  Compared with exercising indoors, exercising outdoors has been shown to

  • increase feelings of revitalization and positive engagement.
  • decrease tension, confusion, anger, and depression.
  • increase energy.
  • make the activity more satisfying and enjoyable.

So, consider stepping outdoors for your next workout.  As little as 5 minutes of activity outdoors can make a huge difference.

Focus on How You Feel

Take some time both during and after physical activity to focus on how you feel.  Make sure to tune into the sensations in your body before, during, and after.  Take a few minutes after your workout to assess your mood, anxiety levels, and overall mental state. Try to capture the positive feelings resulting from your activity.  The next time you need motivation to move, tap back into those good feelings.

Be Kind and Reward Yourself 

Finally, always take time to reward yourself for every positive step forward.  Every movement should be celebrated!   Speak to yourself in a kind and encouraging way, expressing gratitude for what you and your body have accomplished.

In Conclusion

Take the time to take care of yourself this holiday season.  If you struggle with depression or anxiety, try to add just a few minutes of movement into your life every day.  Even the smallest amount of movement can have a huge impact on your emotional and mental health.

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