How to motivate yourself to exercise even when you’re feeling down

The past two years have presented major challenges to our physical and mental health.

With so many of us confined to our homes – especially when gyms have been intermittently closed for most of 2020 – we’ve scoured the internet for the best home fitness equipment, building our home gyms piece by piece. and adapting to a very different training experience. These limitations offered exciting and creative challenges for some fitness fanatics. But they also made it harder to exercise, leading to fewer hours in the gym and a decrease in overall fitness.

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Likewise, the extra time at home has forced many of us to look inward, with distance from others offering a sea change in our social habits and many mental obstacles to overcome along the way. Studies already show that the pandemic has left a significant mark on our collective psyche, with the Kaiser Family Foundation reporting an increase in depressive and anxiety disorders among respondents of all ages. The CDC even has recommendations for dealing with the madness-induced stress of the past few years.

Our brain and body work in tandem to help us function. But they don’t always agree. Even with the best intentions to get in shape or stay in shape, our mental health can sometimes get in the way of us achieving even the most rudimentary fitness goals. Depression and anxiety can easily impact our sense of inspiration and trigger self-doubt, leading us to wonder how to motivate ourselves to exercise when we’re depressed.

To better understand this connection, we spoke with a few experts, who offered great insights and tips for balancing our physical and mental health.

The benefits of exercise on mental health

Before discussing how our mental health can inhibit motivation to exercise, let’s 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, exercise can help relieve stress, depression, and anxiety by releasing neurotransmitters like endorphins and dopamine, which improve our mood and increase our sense of pleasure. Exercise also increases the oxygen supply to the brain, which boosts memory and thinking. There’s a reason so many people stick to a morning fitness routine before they go to work.

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

“When we’re happy and fulfilled, we can revel in dopamine — which is that ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter,” she said. “When we’re depressed, we run out of dopamine and look to food, drugs, or other pleasure-seeking activities for answers.”

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

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

How depression and anxiety affect exercise

So we’ve established that exercise (with its obvious physical health benefits) can be a boon to our mental states. But according to Joseph Librizzi, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in Colorado, when things like depression and anxiety set in, even activities we know are beneficial suddenly seem overwhelming.

“In addition to making it less likely that we will exercise and maintain an exercise routine, depression and anxiety are negative states that involve a contracted or critical state of mind, a negative view of self and the world, which feels real when we’re in it and affects every aspect of our lives,” he said.

Librizzi suggests studying this perspective directly. If you can question and doubt this temporary mindset, Librizzi says, you can begin to overcome it and build strong habits.

“You know that depression or anxiety, even if it actually happens, is not the truth about you,” he said. “It doesn’t feel natural. You know it generally but especially since the moments when it rises and when you have the impression of having been charmed. Training can be intentionally approached as a way to break the spell of lying, a way to seek out what is true about yourself. Improved mental health and general well-being are the results.

Librizzi also brought up the concept of boundaries — the resistance to doing activities we perceive as difficult or undesirable, like washing the 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 tasks we don’t care to complete.

“Consider how you seek freedom,” he said. “It can be from eating too much, scrolling through your phone on social media, drinking or getting high. Addictions of all kinds are related to how we respond to limitations and seek relief from them. Limits are not just facts. Doing the dishes or getting frustrated with traffic aren’t just bad facts. They are negative because of our attitude, 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, this helps create a fitness routine that focuses on the activities you actually enjoy. This makes it much easier to create and maintain motivation.

“If you love hiking but you keep forcing yourself to lift weights 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 proposes to examine 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 pounds so you can post a sexy photo on Instagram. You form your goals on the opinions of others, not the need to achieve your goals based on your own values.

“An example is a weightlifter who trains because he loves weightlifting,” DeLissio said. “They appreciate that, so it’s easy to train for that. This form of motivation is much stronger and leads to better adherence than extrinsic motivation.

Instead of depending on rewards or validation from others, find activities that you find personally rewarding, especially as it relates to your health goals. And for those struggling with depression or anxiety, Librizzi has offered three great suggestions for engaging in exercise, all of which help you compartmentalize and connect with the experience more effectively.

How to motivate yourself to exercise when you’re depressed:

  1. Have a dedicated exercise area. “It trains the mind and helps in the development of concentration of the mind.”

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

  3. Train with others. “You can integrate a reflection on the human condition, on what we share in common, into your life and your exercise routine.”

  4. Use exercise as a form of physical self-awareness. “Caring for and caring for the body can become much more than a physical matter when we deliberately, mindfully engage in contemplating the nature of human life.

As for the concept of boundaries, Librizzi said, it helps reframe your mindset around activities you perceive as limiting or difficult. These activities, when approached with intention and awareness, can actually help you connect and understand yourself better, Librizzi said.

“Negative mindsets and the narrow framework in which we view health impede the development and maintenance of healthy habits,” he said. “So we have to question our mindset, the way we see limits, the effort, the routine and the way we try to free ourselves from the limits that don’t really make us free and fulfilled.”

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