Finding the Motivation to Exercise When You’re Suffering From Chronic Depression

If you live with clinical depression, exercise may be the last thing you want to do. But research shows that regular, sustained amounts of exercise can help alleviate the symptoms of depression, even in the most severe cases. We’ll offer some practical ideas on how you can tailor your exercise to meet your mental health needs—whatever they are.

Here’s what Sarah’s day looks like. She wakes up. She thinks about getting out of bed. She does it, but only because she knows she has to go to work, and that she has to go to work because she has bills, and parents that need to be looked after, and a vague sense that she should be doing something. The rest of the day happens in grayscale. Then she comes home, thinks about going back to bed, and then does it.

When she finally decided to tell someone about her depression, she ended up in the office of her primary care physician. He had her fill out a survey, and then he asked, “How often do you exercise?” She wanted to laugh. “I barely make it out of the house in the morning,” she told him. “How do you expect me to go to the gym?”

Sarah isn’t alone in her experience: almost 10% of Americans struggle with depression every year. And of course it’s hard to exercise when just getting out of bed is a challenge: it’s the exact opposite of the way you feel inside. That’s why it’s important to fit your exercise into your life the way you want to: by starting small, moving slowly, and taking the pressure off yourself. Then you can really start seeing the difference that exercise makes—and it does make a difference, even if researchers continue to debate about how.

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Competing Research on How Exercise Affects the Brain

The most common theory is that exercise prompts the brain to produce endorphins, but there’s another that suggests that sustained, aerobic exercise triggers neurogenesis, and yet another, more general theory that depression decreases the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain, and exercise restores them. Despite science’s confusion around how, research shows, consistently, that exercise alleviates mild-to-moderate depression, sometimes even more effectively that antidepressants.

But the question remains: how do you find the motivation to put it into practice? It’s a total catch-22: exercise has the potential to alleviate your depression, but it may literally be the last thing in the world you want to do.

How to Get Your Exercise Ideas Off the Ground

The important thing when trying to get into an exercise rhythm is to take your needs as your point of departure—not the exercise itself. That means sitting down to put some thought into what you really need out of your exercise. Do you need something that you can do at home? Something that requires a partner? Something you’re already familiar with? Work outwards from there, and then full speed ahead.

  • Start by cutting yourself some slack. Try not to enter into it under pressure—Rome won’t fall if you don’t exercise today. Sometimes surviving is itself an act of exercise, and if all you do today is get out of bed, recognize that as a success, and give yourself some credit for it.
  • Start as small as you need to. Even 35 minutes of brisk walking five times a week can help alleviate the symptoms of depression. Maybe that means you walk to the grocery store rather than take your car, or you take the scenic route on your lunch break. You don’t have to join a CrossFit gym or sign up for a six-week-long strength bootcamp—just find something that works for you.
  • Choose something you genuinely like to do. If you’re not into yoga, better get back to the drawing board. You’ll be a lot more likely to stick to something that you genuinely enjoy rather than something you’re forcing yourself into, so get creative here. What about hiking, or rock climbing, or taking a pilates class? What about drumming? What about following along with a dance instruction video on YouTube? This can be a really good alternative if you’re struggling with anxiety—you can do it on your own, in your own space, on your own time.
  • Take a moment to picture how you’ll feel after you exercise. Whatever the logistics, exercise floods your brain with feel-good chemicals, and they create a sense of euphoria, a “runner’s high,” an immediate feeling of warmth and wellness. When you’re having a hard time finding the motivation to move, make that feeling your carrot by bringing it to mind intentionally and purposefully.
  • Find a compassionate workout buddy. Someone who understands what you’re struggling with and won’t push you too hard and make you feel like you need to do more than you can. If you’re in a residential treatment setting, try to get plugged into an exercise class where you’re likely to meet someone who enjoys the same kinds of workouts you do. If you’re not in residential treatment, reach out to a friend you trust to ask if they’ll get involved in some way, whether that’s by helping you get motivated or holding you accountable. This is about what you need, so think about the kind of support you want from a workout partner, and know that it’s support you deserve.
  • Don’t shame yourself for the days you don’t meet your goals. This is a process. You’re not going to get it right every time, and that’s okay. Give yourself space to figure it out. The important thing is to commit to doing it, even when it’s hard, and forgive yourself when you can’t make it work.

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Approaching Exercise as Self-care

There may not be much consensus about how exercise alleviates depression, but the fact of the matter is that it does. Even when we’re at our most volatile—our most lost—our brains and our bodies have the capacity to help us heal. Tapping into that resource can be difficult, certainly, but the important thing to remember is that you don’t have to do it alone. At Bridges to Recovery, we’ll support you in your exercise and recovery journeys in whatever ways make the most sense to you, whether that’s setting you up with a certified fitness trainer, or just offering a kind, encouraging word when you feel like you need one.

Bridges to Recovery provides a wide array of mental health treatment options to people struggling with depression as well as other mental health disorders, substance abuse disorders, and eating disorders. If you think you or a loved one is living with depression, contact us today to learn more about our comprehensive mental health programs.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash User Abigail Keenan