Fitness Articles

Finding Exercise Motivation When You're Depressed

How to Get Moving When You're Low on Energy


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

  • 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
    one of the things that helps me (although I can't tell you how many times I've scheduled then skipped or canceled), is to register for a workout class. Usually, once I'm there, I'm not going to leave, and I feel good after getting through the workout. While I do like to be in control, handing over the control to an instructor for 30 or 60 minutes can be such a relief. Now if I could just get myself to utilize your advice and try to do something every day, maybe it would become more of a natural habit. - 2/4/2014 6:04:52 PM
    Thanks for this article! Motivation is something I struggle with so much. It's an endless cycle of being depressed, being unmotivated because of it, and then being more depressed because I can't accomplish anything which makes me feel even more useless. Rinse and repeat. Lately I've been feeling so down because I'd really like to start doing pilates in the morning, but I can't even get out of bed before 8:30, which is barely enough time to get ready for work! Then I get home usually late at night and am exhausted. But I really like the small goal setting this article advocates and am definitely going to start putting it into practice. - 2/4/2014 1:47:48 PM
  • Very welcome and important message this am. For those of us who do suffer from all that was mentioned, taking small steps is key-KEY. Knowing that many enthusiasts STRESS heart pounding cardio and daily routines that leave many of us still sitting, it's a wise person who realizes for clinical depression that message is lost.

    Thanks for taking the time to encourage those of us who will find that short walk around the block more difficult than you think...but DOABLE! Depression robs you of the very things you really love as well as affecting those around you who love you. I realize how others who are avid exercise enthusiasts view US. Your looks are not lost on US. We get so should YOU. We're going to make changes...simply be there to help and not hinder,

    Today I will take that short walk, stretch a bit and remember your words. Adding something every week is probably going to be what I can and will do. Small steps to regain health is key.

    Thank you!

    - 2/4/2014 12:37:24 PM
    Thank you so much for this article! It is the little pep-talk that I desperately needed today! This is an area that I am really struggling with right now. I'm trying to get back into a workout routine, and I'm finding myself slipping back into my bad habits and not working out because of the depression. It's time to take a deep breath, put on some music and just do it! - 2/4/2014 8:32:34 AM
  • Great article! This author clearly knows his stuff. His comment about telling someone with depression to "just get over it" is about as useful as telling a diabetic the same thing especially resonated with me. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard something similar, my mortgage would be paid off and I could still buy that vacation beach house. Vitamin D in spades!

    Also super encouraging for those of us (like me) who may be feeling as if they've squandered their health (along with their youth) to note that this author took stock of his situation at the age of 50, committed to a healthy lifestyle, and lost 150 lbs. Well done! And thanks for the inspiration.!!
    - 12/23/2013 11:35:48 PM
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