Mind & Body

How to Motivate Yourself to Exercise When You're Depressed

Everybody knows that if you're suffering from depression, doing some physical exercise is a great way to flood your system with endorphins. The problem is that depression has a way of sapping all your motivation, whether to exercise, or go to work, or ... well, do anything, really. So how do you overcome that obstacle to get the ball rolling on some depression-beating workouts? Here are a few pieces of advice.

Running on Empty

Depression is a mental disorder, but it also has a major effect on the body. We're talking insomnia, fatigue, and a weakened immune system. And while exercise might be a proven method for treating anxiety and depression, the symptoms sometimes make exercise seem impossible. It's a motivation-sucking cycle, but fortunately, there are some psychological techniques that can help you get over that hump and start making your physical fitness work for your mental health instead of against it.

  • Don't wait for motivation. If you're just waiting for motivation to come, understand that it's not going to come. If you ever find yourself saying, "I'll run later when I feel like it," then you should just go ahead and do it. It may help to imagine the way you'll feel when you're done.
  • Make it social. We've already told you about how working out with a partner makes your exercise more effective. It also makes it more likely to happen; it's harder to skip a workout if your workout buddy is waiting on you! You can also double up on your depression-fighting efforts by just talking to someone; if you're trying to decide between a moderate walk and a short drive, choose the walk and give a friend a call while you do it. Letting somebody else in on your fitness activity makes you happier to be doing it.

  • Give yourself a break. Sometimes you just aren't going to feel physically or emotionally capable of working up a sweat. That's okay. Take care of yourself in other ways instead — try sitting out in the sunshine, making a healthy meal, or reading a good book.
  • Broaden your exercise horizons. Maybe when you think "exercise," you think of the hell that high-school gym put you through. But it doesn't have to be that way. Taking a walk in the park is exercise, and so is an active hobby like Frisbee, biking, or tennis. Find an activity that's fun and that you can look forward to, and try not to think of it as exercise at all.

  • Get some technological motivation. Sometimes, you just need the right kind of prodding. If you only exercise when you stick to a certain schedule and routine, the 7-Minute Workout app might be what you're looking for. But if you need some more imaginative motivation, you might try Zombies, Run!, an augmented-reality game where you run like your life depends on it.
  • Wear exercise clothes. It might sound silly, but just wearing exercise clothes might motivate you to work out more. It's called enclothed cognition, and it means that what you wear affects how you think. The next time you feel like you should exercise but you really don't want to, just commit to putting on workout clothes — if you work out, great; if you don't, no big deal.

Workouts That Work

Believe it or not, there is one workout that is guaranteed to deliver the best results: the workout that you'll actually do. We're giving you some suggestions for exercise routines that might help you break out of a slump, but there's no one "right" way to do that — what's important is that you find a routine that you'll enjoy enough to stick to.

Cardio is a tried-and-true recommendation for people with depression trying to get their bodies back in motion. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants, so it's not surprising that running often tops the list of exercises to jumpstart your mood. It's not called a "runner's high" for nothing. But here's a thought: If your depression is linked to your aggression (whether you're stifling it or drowning in it), an aggressive aerobic workout like boxing might be more therapeutic.

That doesn't mean you should totally count out anaerobic exercises — you won't always be feeling up to a run, and you'll probably want to mix it up anyway. There's always yoga, which research suggests can ease depression through serene breathing techniques. Other studies have found that resistance training such as weightlifting is just as effective as aerobic activity for beating depression. So if getting swole sounds right to you, then go ahead and do it.

Above all, remember to give yourself a break sometimes. You're not going to be able to exercise every day, and you might end up feeling like you're not exercising enough — that's a thought process that can trap you in a cycle of feeling incapable. If you miss a workout, that's okay. There's always the next one. And the more you do, the fewer you'll miss.

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After hearing others talk about the amazing effect running had on their mental health but never seeing a book about it, Runner's World editor Scott Douglas decided to write his own. "Running Is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier" explains the science and doles out advice on how running can make you happier overall. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 8, 2018

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