Experts often say that exercise helps cure depression — but for many of us, regular exercise is already one of the world’s most difficult challenges. Getting to the gym while depressed? That’s asking a lot.
But the experts aren’t wrong: a regular exercise routine does help with depression. Exercise helps you sleep better, improves your overall health, and gives you confidence. Plus, exercise gives you endorphins, and endorphins are part of what make you happy.
Not sure how to stick to an exercise routine when you’re already feeling down? These tips may help.
Diving into a full-scale exercise habit is asking a lot, especially if simply getting out of bed is a struggle. Stay in the sheets? Why not, if the alternative is “running 10 miles.”
Don’t demand so much. Start your exercise routine with tiny steps — literally. Instead of a marathon, try a 20-minute jog. Instead of jumping into an intensive spin class, try yoga.
Of course, tailor this advice to your experience level. If you ran marathons before depression reared its head, a 20-minute jog might be too easy. Maybe start with a 5K. And if you’ve never set foot on a treadmill, consider walking before you run.
The main point: Starting with a simpler routine gets you back in the game, and celebrating these small accomplishments builds excitement and momentum — necessary for getting back in shape.
You’re not a Tesla Roadster — you can’t go from zero to 60 in two seconds flat. Or even two months. Starting small means nothing if you’re working toward unrealistic goals. Not to mention unrealistic goals make failure more likely. And let’s be real: Right now, you need a win.
To set your goals, think about where you’d like to be, physically, a few months from now. Pumping iron like Schwarzenegger? Rocking the Chicago Marathon? Free-soloing El Capitan?
Now scale back. Think about where, realistically, you will be. Maybe that’s a 5K, not a marathon. Maybe you’re hitting the climbing gym daily. Remember: You’re not simply improving your body, you’re also working to improve your mind. And that’s hard! Realistic goals make achievable goals.
Pick an Activity you Really, Really Like
Don’t make this harder on yourself by forcing yourself to do an exercise you hate. Despise running? No big deal! Running can suck. Try swimming instead.
Here’s the theory: Motivating yourself to exercise when you’re depressed is hard. Sometimes it feels rocket-science hard. Make it easier by picking something that doesn’t feel like exercise. After all, “exercise” isn’t limited to Olympic track and field events. Consider playing tennis, joining a softball league, or even going to yoga at your favorite breweries.
The most important thing is finding something you’ll be hard-pressed to skip.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Mistakes
Let’s be real: You’re going to mess up. Don’t feel ashamed! It’s 100 percent fine to miss a spin class, skip the gym, or run out of breath on mile three. Failure may feel crushing, but the feeling can be overcome — if you’re compassionate with yourself.
Instead of lingering on your screwed-up exercise session, practice empathy for yourself. You’re working hard to overcome your depression, and that’s something worth celebrating. Don’t give up your efforts. Instead, resolve to try again.
Next time, you’ll succeed. And if you don’t? Keep going back to the gym, or putting on your tennis shoes, or meeting your buddies for pick-up basketball. Eventually, exercise will get easier.
And we don’t just mean at the end of your journey. Don’t plan one reward — plan many! Perhaps you’re doing a program like Couch to 5k. Give yourself a treat every time you advance a week in the program. Or, if you’re working on your climbing skills, reward yourself for each increase in difficulty level.
What exactly constitutes a “reward” is entirely up to you. Maybe you watch a new episode of your favorite TV episode — or maybe you treat yourself to ice cream. (Counterintuitive? Maybe. But if it gets you moving…why not?) Choose something that’s a true incentive. Otherwise, you may not find yourself working toward the goal.
Build a Support System
You’re not in this alone. Your friends and family are rooting for you, too — so get them involved in your process. Maybe your mom is looking to start running, too. Go running together! Need a climbing buddy? Ask a few of your pals.
Or maybe just ask your friends to check in on your progress once in a while. But make sure they understand the journey you’re on and how it involves more than simply your physical well-being. You want friends that will celebrate the accomplishments you have made, not friends who will put you down for not crushing all your goals in half the time expected.
Follow These Strategies, and You’re 25% More Likely to Keep Exercising
Setting realistic goals, rewarding yourself, practicing kindness, and establishing a support system will all help you on the road to recovery. In fact, studies have found that depressed patients who practice these self-help tenets are 25 percent more likely to stick to their chosen exercise program.
Exercise is essential to overcoming depression, and these practices help integrate exercise into your daily routine so you can feel better faster.