Numerous studies have shown that exercise isn’t just good for physical health— it’s an important part of mental health as well. Unfortunately, for those living with depression, an illness characterized by lethargy and a lack of motivation, sticking to a workout program may not feel realistic. It can be hard to keep going to the gym or fulfill a resolution to work out more when depression is a persistent reality. The following pointers are intended to help people get to the gym even when they’re depressed.
The Benefits of Exercise
Regular exercise is an effective way to improve physical health, manage weight and even add years to life, but for many people, those aren’t the benefits that keep them active. Exercise offers a ton of mental health benefits, such as more restorative sleep, a boost in creativity, sharper memory, and a more relaxed feeling throughout the day. It’s a great way to channel stress and enjoy more energy.
For these reasons, regular exercise can have a profound impact on the quality of life of those living with mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Sustained physical activity causes the body to produce endorphins, the famous “feel-good” chemicals that are responsible for feelings of happiness. It also promotes neural growth, it reduces inflammation, and it creates a distraction from the negative thoughts that often feed depression.
In fact, some studies suggest that exercise is as effective as standard antidepressant treatments and that individuals who incorporated exercise into their treatment were about 50 percent less likely than non-exercisers to experience a depression relapse.
Depression Can Sap Motivation to Go to the Gym
Unfortunately, depression’s main characteristics—the stomachaches or headaches, sleep problems, lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness and lack of energy—all make it difficult for someone with this mental illness to lace up their sneakers and go for a morning jog. At times, living with depression may mean that simply going through the daily motions of what has to be done takes every ounce of energy and motivation. Knowing that exercise can have life-changing benefits is one thing, but putting that into practice is something else entirely. For many living with depression, sticking to an exercise regimen feels out of reach.
How to Stay Motivated to Work Out, Even with Depression
Even with all of its benefits, exercise isn’t a complete cure for mental illnesses such as depression. In fact, on some days, summoning the strength and motivation to go to the gym may be too difficult, and that’s okay. However, for those who are trying to stay consistent with going to the gym, there are some steps they can take to put their fitness goals within easier reach.
1. Make It Easier
For those living with depression, just preparing to exercise can feel like a challenge, so it’s important to remove as many barriers as possible. In some cases, this may mean investing in a piece of exercise equipment instead of paying for a gym membership. For those who don’t use equipment, planning may involve finding a few free online workouts and having them bookmarked for easy access. Sometimes, something as small as buying athletic shoes that slip on instead of tie or going to bed in workout clothes can make a huge difference. The point is simply to consider every barrier to working out when experiencing a bout of depression and look for ways to remove them.
2. Don’t Rely on Motivation
While motivation is nice and it makes it easier to stick to a fitness journey, it comes and goes, making it unreliable. Instead, rely on consistency. Experts agree that consistency matters more than intensity, meaning that completing three workouts a week for six months is better than exercising daily for a week or two until burnout sets in.
3. Create a Schedule
Keeping a regular schedule isn’t just important for managing depression, it’s also key to sticking to an exercise program. This spares the individual from the mental effort of deciding when to exercise and boosts their chances of success.
4. Be Realistic
If someone isn’t a morning person even on a good day, then setting an alarm for 5:30 a.m. is probably not conducive to long-term success, regardless of where they are in the depression cycle on a given day. It’s important for an individual to plan a workout when it fits their schedule and their preferences. This may mean going for a walk during a lunch break or hitting the gym in the evening.
Similarly, for someone who doesn’t love exercise, expecting to set aside two hours to work out may feel daunting. Fortunately, exercise doesn’t have to involve maximum effort to be beneficial. Even small amounts of moderate exercise can help with symptoms of depression, especially if it’s an alternative to doing nothing at all.
Ultimately, staying motivated to work out requires that an individual is realistic about what they can accomplish, especially on the difficult days.
5. Find a Favorite Exercise
The beauty of exercise is that the possibilities are vast. For those who say that they don’t like exercise, there’s a decent chance that they just haven’t found the right fit. Walking, running, bicycling, rowing, jumping rope, kickboxing, hiking, dancing and even fitness video games are just a few options for getting the blood pumping. Finding an enjoyable activity makes it much easier to stay on a fitness plan.
6. Keep Track of Workouts
Many people living with depression deal with negative internal dialogues (“I always give up,” or “I just don’t have what it takes to see this through”) that can be really hard to overcome. Keeping track of workouts provides the individual with concrete evidence that they can accomplish their goals. It takes just a few seconds for someone to jot down what they did to exercise, how they felt beforehand and how they felt afterward. The more they see their track record and the more visual proof they have that they can stick to their exercise plan, the easier it is to stay motivated.
7. Be Okay with Imperfection
Sometimes, going to spin class or lacing up those sneakers and hitting the trails just isn’t going to happen, and that’s alright. Instead of seeing those missed opportunities as a sign of imminent failure, look at them as a single data point. It’s important for someone to strike a balance between staying motivated and showing themselves grace when simply getting out of bed felt like a big accomplishment. Try to drop the self-defeating “should” statements (“I should have gotten on the treadmill,”) and come up with positive ones (“I would enjoy going for a walk tomorrow.”)
8. Celebrate Every Triumph
Depression makes it easy for an individual to dwell on things that they haven’t done, so it’s important to reframe the narrative and focus instead on accomplishments. Every step in the right direction should be recognized, no matter how small it seems. Fitness gains, trying new activities and exercising even when the motivation isn’t there are all worthy of celebration.
Get Expert Depression Treatment with FHE Health
While it would be nice if depression could be overcome by jogging a few laps around the track or going for a walk and getting some fresh air, the truth is that treating mental illness is complex. Exercise has a host of benefits for those living with depression, and it works most effectively for managing symptoms when it’s combined with professional treatment.
At FHE Health, we specialize in providing personalized treatment for depression through a holistic approach that addresses the mental, behavioral and physiological elements of this disorder. To speak with a member of our compassionate team at any time, day or night, call us at (888) 969-3881.