Well-Being//

How to Find the Motivation to Work Out When You’re Depressed

Working out can be especially difficult when you’re depressed, even though the brain benefits are powerful. An expert explains how to harness the latest research and get motivated.

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Exercise has a significant positive impact on those suffering from depression, according to new research published in the journal Depression and Anxiety. Depression can also make it especially difficult to get started with exercise, if you don’t already have a workout routine. But there are ways to push yourself to take advantage of the power of movement.

Research published in Neuropsychologia has shown that it’s hard to choose working out over staying sedentary regardless of whether you suffer from depression. Of course that makes sense: Our brains have to work harder to get moving. But depression makes it even more difficult to get started with working out, because depression decreases your motivation, explains Michael C. Miller, M.D., former Editor in Chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Even though it can be challenging, it’s worth trying to overcome that lack of motivation: While exercise can’t replace other treatments like therapy or medication if you are clinically depressed, Miller cautions, it can improve your mood, give you the pride and satisfaction of a task accomplished and, according to this new study, generally improve symptoms of depression.

Here are some tips that can help make that push to action easier.

Choose a time of day that works for you

There is an advantage to working out in the morning if you have a busy schedule throughout the day, Miller acknowledges. But if you struggle with the kind of depression that makes it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, this might not be an actionable time of day to break a sweat — especially since the perceived failure of missing a day of your exercise routine can negatively impact the rest of your day. If you relate, choose a time (after work, or during lunch, for example) that makes more sense for you.

Pick a workout that’s doable every day

The kind of exercise you do doesn’t actually matter so much, and you don’t have to kill yourself with an epic run to see mental health benefits, Miller says. Your activity of choice can be as low-key as a walk or bike ride. But you should choose something that is feasible to keep up on a daily basis, Miller notes. Starting small, with even just five minutes of exercise, is fine — five minutes is better than none, and five minutes can easily become 10 or 30, Miller adds.

Exercise with others

Take that daily walk with a friend, if you can, Miller suggests. Having a buddy will help motivate you to move even when you feel low-energy or down, and they can provide you with built-in encouragement and support for your new routine.

Try meditation

“Meditation may be helpful, because it can help you become less self-critical,” Miller explains. “Meditation can also turn down some of the chatter about your physical abilities, and help you recognize that ‘I can’t’ is often just a story we tell ourselves.” It is also a good tool for learning how to start over again — repeatedly. You inevitably get distracted as you attempt to meditate, and you learn to stop criticizing yourself about that distraction — it’s part of the process. And learning to quiet that voice is crucial when you’re trying to start working out in the midst of depression: Failing to meet your goals, and beating yourself up about it, can just result in more feelings of depression. Instead, you want to be kinder to yourself, and learn to be comfortable with doing the best you can to get moving.

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