3 Tips to Stay Active When You’re Depressed

working out while depressed

On a summer day, there’s nothing I love more than a good run in the hot sun. I slather on my sunscreen, lace up my shoes with a giant grin on my face, and head out to tackle those miles.

Fast-forward to January. There’s a foot of snow on the ground. I stare at my drawer of winter running clothes with contempt, longing to wear my shorts and sports bra outside instead. And I dread those ice-covered sidewalks.

All the while, there’s a little voice inside my head making me feel guilty: You know, they say that exercise will make your winter depression better. So, you better get out there.

Yes, it’s true. The studies prove it. Talkspace provider Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S, backs it up as well, saying, “Recent research has underscored a relationship between regular exercise and improved mental health functioning. Research suggests that neurotransmitters are released during exercise, which can certainly help provide a quick mood boost.”The good news is: a trip to the yoga studio or gym could lift your mood, even in the midst of depression. Woo-hoo!

But if you’re anything like me, you suddenly remember that tiny detail: you actually have to go work out. Among people. You have to get dressed. And I’m guessing you’re already tired, so the thought of pushing your body even more doesn’t sound all that appealing.

Although there are some days when I actually have a desire to work out, even when I’m dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), most of the time I have to dig deep and find reserves of motivation to get out there.

If you’re needing a dose of motivation to do some depression-lifting exercise, when your bed sounds a lot more pleasant, here’s how you can take baby steps toward that workout.

1. Start Small

Depression can make you feel guilty for not living up to your greatest potential. The type-A portion of your personality seems miles away as you continue to lay on the couch for the third hour in a row.

Coming from this place, exercise can seem nearly impossible. That’s why it’s important to think small when it comes to exercise — really small. O’Neill recommends embracing this idea to experience success, “and then building upon that success.”

When you’re suffering from depression, you simply have to get real about your abilities and limits, and exercise is no exception.

Dr. Rachel O’Neill goes on to say, “First, begin by thinking through how exercise realistically fits into your life. For example, does it make more sense to exercise in the morning? At night?” She continues, “Once you have a plan of how exercise fits into your life, begin by allotting a specific amount of time to exercise. For example, I’ll exercise 15 minutes a day. It’s best to start slow and work your way up to a larger goal instead of trying to start with an unrealistic goal in mind.”

Even a walk around the block — or let’s be realistic, around your house on the tough days — is better than nothing. And if you can take on more than that, like a 15-minute weight workout, consider that a huge win.

2. Practice Mindfulness

Let’s say you’ve finally worked up the motivation to exercise. Go, you!

But that’s promptly when the negative self-talk kicks in. Everyone is staring at you. You look depressed — everyone at the gym can see it. You can barely walk to the refrigerator let alone do a lap on the track.

It can go on and on. Judging ourselves mentally is an unpleasant symptom of depression, but you can turn it around, even mid-workout.

“Mindfulness can be a great tool here,” Dr. Rachel O’Neill advises. “Try to let go of judgments and focus on the movement of the exercise. Instead of labeling the exercise as good or bad, easy or hard, try to instead focus on objective observations, like how your feet feel on the floor, how the weights feel in your hands, and how you notice your muscles relaxing and contracting.” After all, she says, “Working out in a mindful way serves a dual benefit of helping you to guard against negative self-talk while also giving you the space to intentionally practice mindfulness.”

3. Choose Effective Exercise

If you’re going to go to the effort of taking off your favorite sweatpants to head to the gym, you might as well try to do a form of exercise that’s particularly beneficial for depression, right?

All exercise is good, but Dr. Rachel O’Neill specifically calls out weight training as one that can help lift depression, saying, “Some research has suggested that weight training two or more times per week can improve symptoms of depression.”

From a research standpoint, she says that weight training is particularly successful in improving one’s mood. But let’s say pumping iron isn’t your thing. There are other forms of exercise that are good for depression, too.

“Walks, especially those in nature, can be helpful, as can yoga, Pilates, running, cycling, or anything that helps connect the mind to the body in an intentional way,” Dr. Rachel O’Neill says.

How I’m Getting Motivated

I agree with Dr. Rachel O’Neill here: small workouts and practicing mindfulness can make working out with depression a lot more bearable. I have some personal tricks I practice, too.

Even though I don’t exactly enjoy wearing my winter running gear, I make sure to stock up on a few new pieces every season that will keep me extremely warm and bring a smile to my face, like my pink wool sweat-wicking headband I love to wear on winter runs. I make sure my playlist is at its most awesome during the winter months, chock full of inspiring tunes or ones that rev up my adrenaline.

I also throw perfectionism out the window. I know I’m not going to set any records this time of year. Moving, even a little bit, is a major accomplishment in my book, so it doesn’t matter how fast or how long you go. All that matters is that you tried. Let’s celebrate that for a moment. And maybe lace up our shoes for our next workout.

If you’re depressed and still feel as if you can’t get motivated to exercise (or even leave your bed), you can speak to a mental health professional and see if online therapy sparks your motivation.

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