Finding Exercise Motivation When You're Depressed

When there's a constant dark cloud over your head, just getting up in the morning can be a challenge. Yet, for those suffering from depression, experts regularly recommend exercise to combat the symptoms. With one of the most common symptoms of depression being a loss of interest in normal activities, though, this "simple solution" can feel next to impossible for some. So what does adding exercise to fight back again depression 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.
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. 

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 some realistic goals or physical challenges that will keep things interesting.

Pay attention to how your efforts make you feel.

One of the primary 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 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 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. Of course, that’s not true, any more than saying that someone with diabetes or pneumonia should snap out of it. 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 understand 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. You can find active message board threads, 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. 

Depression is an illness that can threaten your quality of life, but by confronting the symptoms head-on and taking constructive steps toward solutions, you can improve your outlook and life for the better. 
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Member Comments

.Grateful, very helpful, thanks for sharing. Report
I think having a routine is good & if you can schedule some or all activity early in the day, so much the better. It's nice to get it out of the way, & reap the benefits of extra calorie
burn afterward. However I often walk in the evening now that I am retired. After work it was too easy to blow off due to my job being so stressful & I often worked long, crazy hours. Having a workout buddy would've helped. Eating well & taking supplements are important too. Keeping an eye on the full length mirror (seeing myself naked) was also motivating. I didn't & don't want to be a Walmartian!!! (Pls refer to YouTube if you aren't familiar w/ those.🤔) Report
Exercise gives up endorphins! Report
I wonder what happened to Dean, he is nowhere to be found. Report
Lost my mom in April. Lost one of my boldest friends in May. June ain’t over yet. Fear. Depression. Sadness. Report
Exercise, even just a walk, helps my mood tremendously. Report
I'm glad I ran across the article, I've been feeling deflated or depressed I think because I have achieved astronomical goals and I haven't been working out as intensely and can see my blood-sugar numbers edge up a little. Amazing how this disease is always out there to get me. Report
thanks Report
Great article. I tell myself to get through the warmup. Just the warmup. If I still feel like I don't want to do my workout, I can walk away, no guilty allowed. I've only once taken myself up on it, and it turned out I was getting sick. Report
Thank you Report
I've never been clinically depressed, but activity sure does lift a mood. Report
Thank you. Very helpful. Report
Great information, thanks for sharing. Report
.... Report


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.