Exercise & Depression

We’ve all heard it before: exercise can help mental health. I used to roll my eyes when people would offer (usually unsolicited) advice, suggesting exercise as a remedy for my depression.

“They can’t possibly think exercising will make a difference, can they? Nothing works for me,” I’d think. Not to mention, I barely had the motivation to get out of bed in the first place, let alone go for a run. Who did they think I was!? Somebody with drive!?

Somewhere along the road, though, I decided to give fitness a shot. I wasn’t even giving it a go with intentions of it helping my mental health. I just figured it’d be nice to stop being so lazy and try something new.

I reveled in the calmness and mood boost I felt after class (even if it was brief). It was after these experiences that I became a believer in the power of exercise on mental health.

I started taking kickboxing classes, and was pleasantly surprised at how much negative, angry energy I was able to get out on the punching bag, coming out of the class feeling lighter. I started going to yoga classes, and was amazed at how my brain was able to shut out anxious thoughts and just focus on holding poses.

“However, I’m not going to lie and tell you that these behaviors continued non-stop for the past few years. I’ve been in and out of depressive episodes where I definitely didn’t have the brain power to go to a class, and don’t even get me started on the impact of Covid.

Between being stuck at home over the last year and figuring out ways I could get in some movement even when I felt super depressed even before Covid, I’ve learned a few tricks, and I’m going to share them with you.

1. Remember that something is better than nothing: Let’s say you’re having a really bad day and can’t bring yourself to get in a 30 minute workout. Use this as an opportunity to squeeze in a mini workout, even if it’s just for five minutes. You can use YouTube to your advantage and search for 5 minute workouts (whether you’re looking for a 5 minute yoga flow or a leg circuit, you’ll be able to find something that works for you). Who knows, after the five minutes are up, you might find yourself feeling motivated to keep going for longer.

2. Find an accountability buddy: Having someone to hold you accountable makes you much more likely to follow through with what you said you’re going to do. It’s harder to bail when it isn’t just you. You can do this a few ways, whether it’s meeting up with a friend for a walk, signing up for a fitness class along with a friend, or (my personal favorite when I don’t want to leave the house) Facetime a friend, throw on a YouTube workout video, and do it together! 

3. Experiment with different workout videos: Whether you’re searching on YouTube or Instagram, you’re sure to find a huge array of different types of workout videos. The thought of doing a HIIT video may make you want to crawl into bed and never come out, but maybe the idea of a dance cardio video excites you a teeny tiny bit. Try out different videos (and again, you can start with short five minute ones) and find which you like best. Alternatively, you can try a new wave of live virtual workouts, such as on Recess.tv, where you will be able to see your instructor and classmates in real time (and vice versa). This will give you a sense of community, which is certainly an added bonus for depressed people. 

4. Switch things up so you don’t get bored: While there are some people out there who are happy to go on the same run every morning at 5:30 AM (couldn’t be me), others need to switch things up in order to stay stimulated. If you feel like venturing into IRL workouts, try out a service like Gympass or ClassPass. With one of these memberships, you will have access to tons of different studios and gyms and you can choose any type of class to fit your mood: spin, yoga, pilates, boxing, you name it.

5. Don’t underestimate walks: A walk might not even feel like a workout, but it’s still getting your body moving. Plus, when you’re depressed, the thought of going on a walk is probably way less daunting than doing a workout class or going for (gasp) a run. Not to mention, walking in nature specifically is tied to mental health benefits such as less negative thought rumination and better mental wellbeing, according to recent research.

6. Work out while you watch TV: Yes, I’m serious. Coming from a depressed person, I know we depressed folks like to watch a lot of TV. Turn lazy time into a little bit less lazy time by doing some light exercise while you binge watch. If you happen to have a stationary bike, park it in front of the TV. If not, you can do some squats while you watch, some bicep curls, or whatever floats your boat. You can also search YouTube for “couch workouts.” You’ll be surprised at how many there are.

7. Reward yourself: We all know that getting motivated to exercise when you’re depressed is no easy feat. So, when you actually get up off your butt and work out, make a big deal out of it! Celebrate your accomplishment and give yourself a pat on the back. You can make an old-school sticker chart, or you can decide to treat yourself to something special if you work out three times in a week, for example.

8. Be kind and gentle to yourself: Above all, have self compassion. Depression fluctuates, and some days will be a lot harder than others. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to get in a full workout every day during an intense depressive episode. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you have to take a few days off. 

So, if you’re feeling too depressed to work out, trust me, you’re not alone. Just like with anything else, all we can do is try our best to not let depression get the best of us. Work on taking baby steps towards living a more healthy lifestyle, and your brain will thank you. 


About Author /

Ashley Laderer is a writer who aims to break the stigmas surrounding mental illness and make fellow depression sufferers feel less alone. She is based in New York.

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