How to Motivate Yourself to Exercise Even When You’re Feeling Depressed

The past couple years have presented major challenges for both our physical and mental health.

With so many of us siloed to our homes — particularly when gyms were intermittently closed for most of 2020 — we scoured the internet for the best home fitness equipment, building up our home gyms piece by piece and adjusting to a very different workout experience. These limitations offered exciting, creative challenges for some fitness fanatics. But they also made it more difficult to exercise, leading to less hours in the gym and a decrease in general physical fitness.

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Similarly, the extra time at home forced many of us to look inward, with the distance from others offering a drastically stark change for our social habits, and plenty of mental hurdles to battle along the way. Studies already show that the pandemic has left a significant mark on our collective psyches, with the Kaiser Family Foundation reporting increases in depressive and anxiety disorder among respondents of all ages. The CDC even has recommendations for coping with stress induced by the craziness of these past few years.

Our brains and bodies work in tandem to help us function. But they don’t always see eye to eye. Even with the best intentions of getting in shape or staying fit, sometimes our mental health can prevent us from achieving the most rudimentary of fitness goals. Depression and anxiety can easily impact our sense of inspiration and trigger self-doubt, making us question how to get motivated to exercise when depressed.

To better understand this link, we chatted with a couple of experts, who offered some excellent perspectives and guidance for balancing our physical and mental health.

The Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

Before we tackle how our mental health can inhibit motivation to exercise, let’s take a look at the relationship the other way around — how exercise affects our brains.

Exercise is widely known to benefit mental health. From a scientific standpoint, working out can help ease stress, depression and anxiety by releasing neurotransmitters like endorphins and dopamine, which enhance our mood and increase our sense of pleasure. Exercise also increases the supply of oxygen to the brain, leading to boosts in memory and thinking. There’s a reason so many folks tackle a morning fitness routine before heading off to work.

According to Julia DeLissio, RDN, CPT, that dopamine boost is critical in helping us resist more harmful pleasure-seeking solutions.

“When we are happy and fulfilled, we get to revel in dopamine — which is that “feel good” neurotransmitter,” she said. “When we are depressed, we are depleted in dopamine and search for answers in food, drugs, or other pleasure seeking activities.”

Fit young man in sportswear standing with his hands on his hips in a gym sweating after a workout session

Fit young man in sportswear standing with his hands on his hips in a gym sweating after a workout session

How Depression & Anxiety Affect Exercise

So we’ve established that exercise (along with its obvious physical health benefits) can be a boon for our mental states. But according to Joseph Librizzi, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Colorado, when things like depression and anxiety creep in, even the activities that we know are beneficial suddenly seem insurmountable.

“Besides making it less likely that we’ll exercise and sustain an exercise routine, depression and anxiety are negative states that involve a contracted or critical mindset, a negative view of one’s self and the world, that seems true when we’re in it and affects all aspects of our lives,” he said.

Librizzi suggests investigating this perspective directly. If you can question and doubt this temporary state of mind, Librizzi says, you can begin to work through it and develop strong habits.

“You know that depression or anxiety, while factually occurring, is not the truth about you,” he said. “It doesn’t feel natural. You know generally but especially from times when it lifts and you feel as though you’ve been under a spell. Working out can be intentionally approached as a way of breaking the spell of untruth, a way of pursuing what is true about yourself. Improved mental health and general well-being are its fruit.”

Librizzi also brought up the concept of limitations — the resistance to do activities we perceive as difficult or undesirable, like doing dishes or going to the gym. Like our tendency to seek pleasure through unhealthy habits, a narrow or depressed mindset will also force us to seek freedom from the tasks we don’t care to accomplish.

“Consider how you seek freedom,” he said. “It may be through over-eating, scrolling through your phone on social media, drinking or getting high in excess. Addictions of all sorts are tied to how we respond to and seeking relief from limitations. Limitations are not just facts. Doing the dishes or getting frustrated in traffic are not just negative facts. They are negative because of our outlook, which is a form of consciousness.”

How to Motivate Yourself to Exercise

So how do you motivate yourself to exercise when you’re depressed? According to DeLissio, it helps to create a fitness routine centered around activities you actually enjoy. This makes it much easier to create and sustain motivation.

“If you like hiking but you keep forcing yourself to lift in the weight room, and find yourself skipping days, you’ll be worse off than if you were to start training for something you love,” she said.

DeLissio also suggests examining the two main types of motivation.

“This source of motivation is weak and usually deteriorates when people stop validating your habits,” she said. “An example would be aiming to lose 10 lbs so you can post a hot picture on Instagram. You are forming your goals over the opinions of others, not the need to achieve based on your own values.”

“An example is a weightlifter who trains because they enjoy weightlifting,” DeLissio said. “They enjoy it, so it feels effortless to train for it. This form of motivation is much stronger and leads to better adherence than extrinsic motivation.”

Instead of depending on rewards or the validation of others, find the activities that you personally find rewarding, particularly as they relate to your health goals. And for those who struggle with depression or anxiety, Librizzi offered three excellent suggestions for engaging with exercise, all of which help you compartmentalize and connect to the experience more effectively.

How to get motivated to exercise when you’re depressed:

  1. Have a dedicated space for exercise. “This entrains the mind and helps with the development of focus of mind.”

  2. Avoid your phone while exercising. “Be with your thoughts and feelings, your resistance, observe.”

  3. Work out with others. “You can incorporate reflecting on the human condition, on what we share in common, into your life and exercise routine.”

  4. Use exercise as a form of physical self-awareness. “Attending to and taking care of the body can become much more than a physical affair when we engage deliberately, with awareness, in contemplating the nature of human life.

On the concept of limitations, Librizzi said, it helps to reframe your mentality around those activities you perceive as limiting or difficult. These activities, when approached with intent and awareness, can actually help you connect to and understand yourself better, Librizzi said.

“Negative states of mind, and the narrow frame in which we view health, get in the way of developing and sustaining healthy habits,” he said. “So we need to challenge our mindset, our way of viewing limitations, effort, routine, and the ways we try to be free of limitations that don’t actually make us free and fulfilled.”

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