We all know that exercising is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. (Insert eye roll here.) But knowing that—and actually prying your near-lifeless body off of the couch and strutting into the gym mid-depressive episode—that’s something else entirely. And being too depressed to exercise is very real.
“Depression can make even the slightest activity seem to require superhuman effort,” says psychotherapist Sarah Farris, L.C.P.C., an International Sports Sciences Association-certified fitness nutrition specialist and founder of Chicago Mind and Body. After all, symptoms range of the emotional—sadness, grief, hopelessness—to the very physical—fatigue, GI pain, headaches. And all work in cahoots to keep you focused on one thing and one thing only: how shitty everything is.
“In order to adequately pay attention to feelings of ‘loss,’ a primary feeling of depression, to gather resources effectively, and to process the loss, withdrawal and a reduction in activity is necessary,” explains L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D., a Kentucky psychologist and member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Depression is a full-time job that doesn’t leave you the bandwidth to do much else, and generally too depressed to exercise.
That’s why it’s important that anyone who is battling depression—or even suspects that they might be—reach out to a licensed counselor or therapist to learn strategies for making positive steps, despite the all-consuming nature of depression.
What to Do If You’re Too Depressed to Exercise
In the meantime, though, here are six tactics that can help you keep moving when all you want to do is not.
1. Have a Plan Ready to Go
For many people, the symptoms of clinical depression are not constant. And, so, if you know it’s an ongoing issue for you, you can use your good days, when you actually have mental energy at your disposal, to plan for bad ones. Think about it: If you wait to make decisions until you’re in a depressive state, you will be exponentially less likely to make healthy ones than you will when you’re in a pocket of mental clarity.
Take advantage of that pocket to write out a “script” of how you typically act when you’re depressed—or what thoughts, feelings, or triggers keep you dormant—and then literally throw it out, says Darrell L. Phillips, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., a sport psychologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist with distinction at the University of Kansas. Write a new “script.” When you notice that you’re headed back into depression, what will you do? “Provide details of how you really want to behave, how you really want to act,” he says.
For example, if one of the first signs that you’re on the cusp of another depressive episode is playing hooky from work, write out that calling in sick (when you’re not really sick), is your cue to go for a walk, do a quick bodyweight circuit, or visit the weight room to rage. Whatever you decide you’ll do and when, write it out in detail. Post your script where you know you’ll be able to see it—like right next to the bed or couch—to make actually following it more automatic.
2. Remove Every Barrier Possible
If you’re feeling too depressed to exercise, chances are that picking out workout clothes and battling for a parking space at the gym don’t sound simple or easy. When writing out your script, think through what obstacles depression turns into excuses to skip out on movement. Then, consider how you can remove those obstacles from the equation altogether, Farris says.
The solution might be as simple as going to bed in the workout clothes for the next morning or taking a ride share to the gym instead of driving there. (The $10 fee is worth your mental health.)
3. Know That You Don’t Have to Want to Exercise to Have a Good Workout
Motivation is fickle, so don’t count on it. “Rather than allowing a fleeting thought or feeling to dictate a change in behavior, people need to accept discomfort and allow it to strengthen their commitment toward their pre-determined decisions,” Farris says. “For example, if one commits to exercising in the mornings, but when they wake up, they don’t feel interested, we practice accepting that both can exist simultaneously. Rather than allowing a feeling of disinterest to suggest a decision to skip the gym, we’ll focus on giving room to both. One can be both uninterested and still follow through with the plan to work out. It doesn’t have to be either-or.”
Easier said than done, of course, but this is another place writing scripts can come into play. Think: “Even if I feel too depressed to exercise, I will do 10 push-ups and then go from there.” “Recognizing that a temporary thought or feeling of disinterest may change can help with going through the initial motions to get going,” she says.
4. Forget “Go Hard or Go Home”
Similarly, the script doesn’t have to be an hour-long heavy lifting session. It can literally be as small as “I will stand up off of the couch 15 times.” Hey, that’s 15 box squats.
Often in those with depression, these small behaviors lead to more, Phillips says. Once you get moving and the endorphins start to trickle, you may find yourself wanting to do more. If not, and those 15 box squats are all you do that day, exercise-wise, that’s still far better than nothing.
“I discuss expectations about training routines with individual clients and recommend adjusting plans so that they can be manageable and realistic,” adds Farris. “This may mean that an individual coping with depression struggles to maintain a high level of intensity in their training. Using a cognitive-behavioral approach, we talk about any beliefs or discouraging feelings regarding a decrease in training efforts. Accepting that some movement can make a difference and removing rigid ‘all or nothing’ thoughts like ‘I must train hard six days per week, and if I can’t then I won’t work out at all’ or ‘everything feels heavy today, so I should just quit’ is an important area to focus on.”
5. Avoid Opportunities to Get Down on Yourself
When you’re depressed, your chance of negatively comparing yourself to others and putting yourself down is at its greatest, Chapman says. For that reason, you might want to avoid exercise settings that invite (even friendly) rivalry—such as group classes or lifting with that friend who always makes you feel like a shrimp.
Instead, tell those friends who are the most supportive of you what you’re going through, what your exercise goals are, and make a deal in which they ask you to work out with them when they notice you’re down. Prioritize forms of exercise that make you feel strong and capable, and lean away from those at which you’re a beginner or could easily become frustrated.
6. Recognize Your Accomplishments
When you’re feeling too depressed to exercise, any movement is a major win. “Keeping a calendar and reward system tends to help many people exercise when dealing with depression,” Phillips says. Maybe you gift yourself with a set of adjustable dumbbells after checking off 10 workouts. As cheesy as it might sound, even placing a gold star on the calendar to note that, “Yes, I exercised today,” can increase positive feelings about yourself (which are usually in short supply with depression) and encourage you to keep up your routine.
“Sharing your goals and accomplishments makes it real as well,” he says. Post to Facebook or shoot a text to your best friend; invite others to cheer you on. It can be hard to ’fess up about depression, but when you do, the support you’ll receive will make getting through it infinitely easier. In fact, science shows that compliments are like mini-orgasms for your brain!