Fitness Articles

Finding Exercise Motivation When You're Depressed

How to Get Moving When You're Low on Energy

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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • 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 - 11/30/2015 10:14:49 AM
  • 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! :-)

    Don - 10/27/2015 9:03:42 AM
  • 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. - 8/18/2015 10:27:21 AM
  • 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. - 6/18/2015 12:11:40 AM
    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... - 4/18/2015 10:18:59 AM
  • PS of the previous post. I wish that I had proofread my comment before sending it, because the word comment should be commend. - 11/30/2014 3:27:54 PM
  • Thank you so much for this wise and full of motivation that I can feel, just by reading it. I appreciate it so much and comment you. - 11/30/2014 3:26:25 PM
    While reaching out for help with motivation, I was looking for the majic words, on a facebook page someone posted after my comment "Motivation comes from within". I felt like posting DUH, but I left it alone and went about my business. I have been fighting depression for my whole life, motivation does not come easily. About five years ago I got divorced, didn't realize until recently how much my ex put me down during the 23 years we were together. Before my divorce I lost about 100 lbs, and have kept all but 20 lbs off for about five years now. Will be 48 this year that 20 lbs feels like the original 100lbs, going to be ok I will find the motivation to exercise it does make depression easier to fight when you have energy. - 11/30/2014 8:40:53 AM
  • I had a small streak going....and then my mood plummet, once more. For the past three days I've "excused myself" from exercising. ("Please excuse, Cynthia, the dog ate her homework"). yeah. NOT a valid excuse. But I think I was looking at too big of a goal. I can walk up and down the stairs a couple times. Or maybe do some wall pushups. It's nice to know that little things like that count. Thanks for this article. - 11/30/2014 8:14:59 AM
  • I'm an 80 yr old grossly overweight guy struggling to be able to do everyday things -- like lose weight and exercise. Recently, arthritis has set in to my knees, hip and back. Epidurals and shots have not helped at all. I cannot walk without severe pain unless I am highly medicated. I tried to take an exercise pool class last week and was unable to walk back and forth in an exercise lane. Pain was terrific. Worse than that, I have lost my best support ( by far) - a personal trainer who looks exactly like the model used in the Depression article. I made a dumb comment which hurt her so deeply that she no longer exhibits the loving, caring, supportive characteristics that made her so dear to me. I sat at my computer and cried when I saw that picture and read the article. I have lost my BEST friend! Moving on from here is uncharted territory as she has helped me so much over several years. Depression is deepening and motivation is at a minimum. I don't really expect anyone to read all this, but maybe expressing myself--again-- we help me psychologically. Incidentally, my family does NOT understand depression nor motivation. - 9/30/2014 1:49:13 AM
    As I got older the hobbies I lived for are now unreachable. I am trying to sublimate but the support that is needed just isn't there. it's hard for an old dog to learn new habits. - 9/29/2014 11:30:25 PM
  • Having been depressed before, going through a long recovery. I am aware of what the my feeling are. Recently I have had a lot happening in my life in a very short time, I felt myself wanting to skip exercise. stay in bed longer. No interest in anything. I felt the darkness creeping in. Even though I take pills to stabilize my feeling. What was going on was more than I could deal with. The long exercises, I didn't want to do. But I made myself get dressed, go out for short walks. I have a dog, it helps. I know he likes his walks. Just being up and out seeing nature, realizing you are alive and capable of so much, gives you a sense of I can do this. Of course, I did discuss with my Doctor going on a different medication. If I continue to feel I need more help with my condition I will seek it in whatever form is called for. But I do know exercises releases chemicals in your brain that are helpful. So call exercise ,Dr. Feelgood, maybe it is all you need to help you through a rough time in your life. And once you start to get in some exercise hopefully you will want to continue. - 9/29/2014 8:42:14 AM
  • I started exercising this month. Of course, I have been here before, but there was a couple of key differences this time. I am seeing a counsellor and an MD for both ADD and depression. I am getting both medical help and mental tools to help me do better, which is starting to have benefits. I started very simple, exercising just 5 minutes a day, 5 days a week. I did have problems with my depression for part of the time and stopped exercising, but I did not let that stop me from trying again. Iím now up to 10 minutes of exercise a day and I came very close to my goal of exercising 20 times (18) in 4 weeks so I am pleased with that. Even exercising this little bit has had a noticeable impact on my mood and my diabetes.

    Here's the point. Start small and simple. Remember, failure is NOT final unless you stop trying, so keep trying. Get whatever help you need and don't settle for anything less.

    Good luck and God Bless! - 9/29/2014 2:48:06 AM
  • I actually did this this morning when I was feeling a bit low. It helped me cheer right up. :) - 5/28/2014 11:55:20 PM
    I am trying - 2/5/2014 11:57:09 AM

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