Finding Motivation to Exercise When You’re Depressed

Life gets tough for all of us. People get fired. Go through messy breakups. Or struggle with body image. When issues overwhelm us, we get depressed. And every little speed bump can feel like a roadblock.

We know that exercise can help with depression. But it’s the last thing we feel like doing when dealing with despair, tiredness, self-doubt, and disinterest. As a coach, I’ve worked with clients who are depressed and struggling to exercise. I’ve also been in their shoes.

When we’re depressed, we need to find ways to change our mindset before we can start looking after our physical health. Depression is complex and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But here are some approaches I’ve used with both my clients and myself.

You Don’t Have to Exercise

Why do you want to exercise? Is it because you feel like it’s something you should do? Or is it something you enjoy?

If exercise makes you feel better, spending time finding ways to get motivated is worthwhile. But if it becomes another to-do task that you get down about, then it’s okay to step away from it. Maybe you focus on other aspects of your health—like nutrition or destressing—and come back to it when ready.

Start Small

When you’re feeling depressed, you’re not functioning at 100%. So, trying to take on too much sets you up for failure.

If you’re struggling to keep on top of work, family, and day-to-day tasks, don’t try to fit tough workouts in. Opt for something you know you can do no matter how crazy things get. What about a 10-minute walk during your lunch break? Maybe some simple stretches or mobility work to wind down before bed.

By setting ridiculously easy goals to begin with, you get momentum as you build small wins. The activity isn’t important. Your sole focus is taking small steps that will help you build habits.

Focus on Keystone Habits

Some habits have more of an impact on our lives than others. Keystone habits have a domino effect by helping us form multiple good habits quickly. Let’s look at an example from the Power of Habit.

Lisa Allen was 34 years old and had started drinking and smoking at 16. She had struggled with obesity all her life. She had never held down a job for more than one year and was in debt. After hitting rock bottom and going through a divorce, she makes the decision to quit smoking. Quitting smoking turned out to be a keystone habit that helped Lisa transform her health:

Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on. She would start running half-marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house, and get engaged.

You can see how one change can have a positive flow-on effect in other areas. What are the habits in your life that pay the biggest dividends? It could be anything from daily exercise to meditation.

Don’t Go It Alone

I like to be self-sufficient and not rely on other people. But this approach has never worked well for me. We all need support in one way or another—we can’t do it all on our own. If you’re feeling depressed and need help sticking to an exercise routine, accountability and support can help.

Ask a close friend for help. Let them know you’re having trouble sticking to a routine. Set a day to check in with them. It can be as simple as an email or text. Knowing that you’ll be accountable to someone else can give you the push you need.

If you find it easier working out with someone, then look for a workout partner. This will give you much needed support, as well as making it harder for you to skip a workout.

Finally, you can also use websites like stickK to set up an online accountability system.

Acknowledge Every Step Forward

When you’re feeling depressed, you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. So, if you do take a step in the right direction, congratulate yourself. It doesn’t matter how small it is.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
— Lao Tzu

On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up. Nobody’s perfect. If you miss a workout or take a step back, don’t let that be an excuse to spiral out of control.

Find a Setting and Style That Works for You

Some people hate gyms. Some people love outdoor workouts. We’re all motivated by different settings and styles.

Over the top, hyped up bootcamps push some people and demotivate others. There’s something out there for you, so start by identifying what you don’t like. Then go try the opposite. And don’t give up if it takes a few cracks to find your niche.

Silence the Inner Critic

Depressed or not, we all deal with an inner critic. When we’re overly critical of ourselves we focus on failures instead of the ways we could have improved. We need to be able to take control of negative self-talk to change our mindset.

There are plenty of things you can do to silence your inner critic. Test out as many techniques and find what works best. Here are a couple of suggestions.

One approach is possible thinking. Instead of feeling like you need to turn your negative thoughts into positive ones (which doesn’t work), you look for neutral thoughts and facts. “I’m fat and lazy” becomes “I’d like to lose 15 lb. I know how to do this and can get support.”

You can also think about how you’d talk to a close friend that was struggling with their health. You wouldn’t call them a slob or put them down. You’d acknowledge their problem and help them look for solutions. Use the same approach for your own self-talk.

Don’t Think Exercise, Make It About Something Else

Combine exercise with something you love. Chuck on your favourite podcast or audiobook when you go for a walk. Watch some TV when you’re on the exercise bike or treadmill. You could even arrange to meet a friend for coffee afterwards. You get the idea. Find ways to make it about something more than exercise.

Practice Gratitude

I know. This sounds like the last thing you want to do when you’re depressed. But research on brain science shows that gratitude could be the ultimate magic pill for happiness. Gratitude stimulates the part of the brain associated with dopamine—the feel-good chemical. When we’re happy, we find it much easier to stick to a healthy routine.

Practicing gratitude is very easy. Got a few minutes in the morning? Then you can do this. Every morning write down three answers to this question: ‘I am grateful for . . .’

If you can spend five minutes a day doing some journaling—not the ‘dear diary type’—I highly recommend test driving The 5-Minute Journal.

Find Something You Love

Exercise is hard work and there are days we don’t feel like it. But it should be something you like doing, even if it’s tough.

If you’re doing an activity because you think you should or that it’ll help you lose weight, it’s going to be hard to sustain. The best exercise plan is the one you’ll stick to.

Explore the options available. Try running, swimming, yoga, martial arts, weightlifting, CrossFit, functional movement classes, acro yoga, rock climbing, paddleboarding, slacklining . . . The list is endless. And I believe there’s something out there for everyone.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) test out one of the above approaches to help you get motivated. Start out with an easy change. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what gets you going when you’re feeling down.

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