Fitness Articles

Finding Exercise Motivation When You're Depressed

How to Get Moving When You're Low on Energy

I know exercise is supposed to help me fight depression, but how can I find the motivation to work out when I'm depressed?

Depression definitely can make it hard to find the motivation for exercise (among other things) because loss of interest in normal activities, along with the ability to enjoy them, is often one of the main symptoms of depression. But what does that mean in practical terms?
It definitely doesn’t mean that you’ll have to wait until your depression has cleared up before you’ll be able to start building up a regular exercise routine. In fact, it probably means just the opposite. You might need to stop looking for your motivation or waiting for it to appear before you start working out.  Instead, recognize that feeling unmotivated is part of the illness and that starting a regular exercise routine is an important part of the cure. It’s a lot like getting out of bed in the morning on a low day—you might not feel like it; but you know that if you don’t do it, things are only going to go downhill from there.
The good news is that actually starting an effective exercise routine isn’t as unpleasant or difficult as it seems. Just because you're depressed doesn't mean you'll to have to spend weeks or months forcing yourself to do something you don’t feel like doing; you just have to start by taking the first few steps on faith. That’s because motivation is actually a mental muscle that works a lot like your other muscles—the more you use it, the stronger it gets. And just like there are good (and bad) ways to train your other muscles effectively, there are good ways to train your motivation so it gets stronger as you go along, and makes it easier for you to establish and maintain a good exercise habit. Here are a few good motivation muscle training tips to get you started.
Start with where you are today, and move forward from there. Exercise doesn’t have to mean 60 minutes of heart-pounding, heavy-breathing activity that leaves you sweaty, sore and exhausted. And you don’t need any special equipment or a gym membership to get started. You can start with something as simple as a walk around the block, going up and down your stairs a couple of times, or just taking some time to stretch your muscles while you’re watching TV. The important thing at first is to make a deal with yourself that you’ll do something every day rather than nothing. Once you’ve established a good streak of doing some activity every day, you can take the next step of trying to do a little more today than you did yesterday, and setting yourself some realistic goals or physical challenges that will keep things interesting.

Pay attention to how your efforts make you feel.
One of the chief benefits of exercise, especially if you’re dealing with depression, is the way it stimulates the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters in your brain. These are your body’s natural feel-good chemicals, and they can provide a significant mood boost at the same time they’re helping you generate some motivation to keep moving. You can make it easier for your endorphins to do all this for you if you pay attention to how your exercise makes you feel.

Notice how you’re feeling before, during, and after your exercise. Did your energy level pick up once you got started? Did you feel better afterward than you did before you started? How do you feel after you decide to skip your workouts, and how does that compare to how you feel when you decide to just do it? On days when you find yourself struggling to get started with exercise, take a moment to ask yourself how you’d rather feel today and which choice seems most likely to help you make that happen?

Be aware though, that exercise isn’t a substitute for other forms of treatment you might  also need when you’re dealing with a clinical depression. Rather, it’s a way you can help increase the positive effects of those treatments.
Reward yourself for successes, small and large.
One of the best ways to turn one good decision into a string of good decisions is to reward yourself. Earlier I mentioned starting a streak of days on which you decide to do some kind of physical activity rather than none. You can help yourself achieve this goal by setting a specific and reasonable target of consecutive days (let’s say seven) and then setting up a reward you can earn by achieving that goal. Maybe there’s a book you think you might enjoy or a movie you’d like to see, or maybe it’s been a while since you’ve gone out for dinner with a friend. It can be anything, really, as long as it won’t bust your budget or add any stress to your life. And if you can pick a reward that involves something you used to enjoy before becoming depressed, all the better.

Once you’ve achieved your first goal, set another one that’s a bit more challenging, like working your way up to 30 minutes of exercise, and find a new reward. Keep your goals specific, relatively short-term, and reasonable, and always keep in mind that progress doesn’t require perfection. If you miss a day of exercise that doesn’t end this whole project—it just means you start counting your seven days over at one again.
Share your efforts with someone else in the same boat.
One of the factors that can make depression especially difficult to beat is that people who haven’t been depressed often don’t seem to understand what you're going through. Often, they seem to think (and will be happy to tell you) that you just need to snap out of it or pull yourself together. That’s not true, any more than someone with diabetes or pneumonia just needs to snap out of it; and it’s not helpful. One thing that does seem pretty clear is that people do a lot better at overcoming depression when they have the support and company of people who do know what you’re dealing with—because they’re also trying to do the same thing. So if you’re struggling to establish a regular exercise routine, find others in the same boat.

Most communities have in-person support groups focused on depression recovery, and there are many online resources that include social communities—like right here on SparkPeople. You can find active message board threads and exercise challenges, as well as online exercise buddies and accountability partners you can hook up with if you think that would be helpful. There’s nothing like the feeling of not wanting to let your exercise partner down to get you up and moving when you might otherwise not. There are also SparkTeams of members dealing with depression that can give you a place to go when you need to talk about what’s going on for you, or find someone you can help out when you want to get your mind off your own problems for a little while.
Mayo Clinic. "Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms," accessed February 25, 2013.

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Member Comments

  • thank you very much
  • Perhaps the greatest motivation to exercise while depressed is the knowledge that exercise is a valuable tool in fighting depression/
  • I suffer(ed) from depression for many years. What really helped me was 3 sayings I said every day several times a day (1) What have you done today to make you feel proud (2) Just do it (3) Fake it till you make it
  • Thank you Dean Anderson and SparkPeople for posting this article! I am GRATEFUL to not be depressed right now, but fear of depression is still a monkey on my back. It's waiting to catch me if there's ever a day that I let my guard up.

    After three decades, I know a good cardio session will put some distance between me and this bogeyman. Yet it's still hard to get those cardio sessions started; sometimes I'm even still afraid of my workouts before I start.

    Thanks Dean for showing me that I'm not alone, and reminding me that ups-and-downs are normal. I agree with DDOORN - viva la Spark! :)

    I would love to be exercising but I'm in to much pain from back problems leading to sciatica.
    That is why I'm depressed.The fact that this depresses me only leads to more pain probably.
    I don't know what the answer is to that.
    . I do keep moving doing everyday chores around the house.
    I'm afraid I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself today. Not good!
  • I live in an apartment with such a panorama of beauty that actually going out for a walk seems unnecessary. An accident triggering all the dreadful agony of Stenosis , arthritis and everything that I never thought i would suffer. An active, beautiful woman who looked and felt twenty years younger , I've aged twenty years in one year. Depression from chronic pain and the hard work of keeping up appearances, doing small chores. This article helped immensely, because that's just about what I am managing to do. HydroCinesiothera
    py (pool therapy) twice a week is helping to get me out and about, in spite of the pain. (No medication reduces the pain, tried almost everything, can't use Cortisone because of inner eye pressure) I'm doing planks and small exercises as suggested and it helps immensely. Internet helps too. Thanks Spark people!
  • There are many many many good resources and places of help for dealing with depression. May I recommend one that has been helpful in my life: "Get It Done When You're Depressed" by Julie A Fast & John D Preston. This is a good book not only for people dealing with mood issues, but also for their friends/family who may need a little help understanding why "just get over it" doesn't work for us.

    For me - committing to just 10 minutes a day of SOMETHING exercise-y was the starting point. I cried through quite a few workouts, but I did them. Now I'm looking at Day 1,177 of my exercise streak and I've upped my minimum to 20 minutes.

    I hope and pray that all of you find the Key to feeling better.
  • Great article and exercise is really important for people suffering depression. I've been there and exercise helped me a lot. My tip is don't blame yourself if you don't exercise one day, Every day is a good day to start. Say this out loud as often as it takes. You'll feel silly but it does work.
    After my father passed away, a year ago, I got into a major funk and chose to turn myself into a workaholic, thinking that would fix everything. Well, it didn't, so I started going back to the gym. That served to be temporary fix because 10 months after his passing I placed my father in Arlington National Cemetery and, thus, put myself back to square one. Depression is wicked and when it finds you and slaps you in the face its difficult to get motivated to get "back on the horse" and do it again but I'm bound and determined to do it!!! No better day than today, even if its for 30 minutes, that's better than thinking about it I guess. So, wish me luck as I wish you all the very best. With the holidays upon us even the least bit of exercise can help curb a downer of a day. I know its difficult but have faith in yourself :-}
  • ITZEL4897
    WELL, this has help me realize that i need to exercise more, now that i see that it has help all of this people....i am getting fat i gain .5 a pound this last month , you know cause of thanksgiving . i will certainly use this ONE day!1!1!1!1!1! THANK YOU
  • When I'm depressed so much of my life seems to be out of control or beyond my control.

    What I love about making healthy food and activity choices is that I know that these are choices that are totally under my control, if I choose to take charge of my life.

    The toe-hold that this laser-like focus on healthy food and activity choices offers gives me a boost, a lift that spreads to other parts of my life.

    Viva la SPARK! :-)

  • It's very easy to say "move a little each day". But if you're dealing with grief and depression, and I've walked that road, you are paralyzed and the very thought of moving is like climbing Mt. Everest.
  • Thanks for the encouragement! You folks encouraged me to ride my bike for 10 minutes, including some arm exercises at the same time. It helps us to realize that we are not alone, but a part of an encouraging, understanding group.
    Good article, I too have dealt with depression over the years. I have found that just getting myself out there among other people (positive) takes the thoughts off of yourself, a lot of prayer which gives you hope for your future. Exercise is a natural mood lifter and the more I do it the better I feel! Most of all, I need to stop comparing myself to others! Blessings...

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.