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Graeme Cowan
Graeme Cowan

How To Exercise When Depressed

Exercise is proven to help with treating depression. Here's how to get started.

Want to treat your depression quickly, safely and for free? Exercise!

It works, has no side effects (unless you REALLY over-exert yourself) and is great for your mental and physical well-being in every respect.

In fact, a recent review of over 26 years of research shows that moderate physical activity each day—even something as simple as gardening—can prevent depression in all age groups, not just treat it. So exercise as part of a depression treatment strategy really is a no-brainer!

But let’s face it, you don’t really want to exercise, do you? I know that feeling. Maybe you’re reading this article as part of a desperate effort NOT to do any physical activity!!

It’s Not Just You

In Back From The Brink, I interviewed Alastair Campbell, who served as Chief Advisor to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Alastair’s battle with depression is well-publicised and he is a vocal critic of mental health stigma.

For Alastair, keeping fit is a crucial part of his daily regime and he acknowledges the importance of exercise to his mental well-being. When he ran the 2003 London Marathon, sponsored by then-US President George W. Bush, he drew a lot of media attention.

But Alastair admits that when he’s depressed, even he finds it harder to generate the enthusiasm and energy required for exercise, despite this being such an important and enjoyable part of his life.

It’s a problem that affects many of us when suffering from depression or the lows of bipolar disorder. Even thinking of exercise is tiring. Exercise involves working up a sweat, long runs, exhaustion or hours in expensive gyms, right?


Exercise Is Literally On Your Doorstep

If you realise that exercise is not synonymous with marathons or intensive workouts, the fear and aversion subsides.

So let me tell you: Starting exercise doesn’t mean starting significant exercise and it doesn’t have to be hard work. Both Back From The Brink and my practical mental-health repository Beating Depression contains some wonderful, fun ideas for activities which are so ridiculously enjoyable they shouldn’t count as exercise, but they do.

But you don’t have to rush into these straight away. In fact, it’s better if you don’t, and start off small with whisker goals.

Whisker Goals—Manageable Chunks

Whisker Goals are small, no-stress goals. You set yourself a very small, easily achievable goal and then do it, without thinking about anything larger and doing nothing more than just that whisker goal.

The main purpose of whisker goals is very simple: You set and achieve small, realistic goals and PROVE to yourself that you are capable! Then you slowly scale up those goals.

Imagine a thoroughly messy cupboard in your house. You’ve been meaning to clean it for ages, but the thought of tackling all that disorganisation puts you off. You’ll do ANYTHING but take on this mammoth task, which could take you hours or even days!

But what if you set a whisker goal of spending just 5 minutes a day cleaning that cupboard? Set a timer, open the door, work on what is in front of you and—BING!—as soon as the timer goes off, close the cupboard door, no matter where you’re at.

5 minutes a day. For a week. The next week, you increase that time to 10 minutes a day. The next week, 15 minutes.

Pretty soon, without even realising it, that mammoth task of cleaning the cupboard was completed and was nowhere near as painful as you thought it’d be. Because instead of doing it all at once, you used whisker goals to break the project into small, manageable chunks.

Exercise By Walking To The Mailbox and Back

The same strategy applies to exercise—start off with tiny whisker goals and slowly work your way up from there.

After reading this article, put on your running shoes and walk to the mailbox, then back to your house. That’s your exercise for the day and maybe the next day. After that, maybe walk to the end of your block. The day after, to a shop a block or two away—make sure to reward yourself with a treat or your favourite snack!

By doing this, you build up your level of exercise and prove to yourself that you can set and achieve small and manageable goals. That can do wonders for your self-belief. As you slowly ratchet up the distance or intensity of a particular exercise, you’ll quickly feel the self-reinforcing benefits that regular exercise brings to the mind and body.

Whisker goals make exercising easy and manageable when you have depression or bipolar disorder. But you have to act on those goals, not just set them. Otherwise, the only exercise you’ll be doing is in procrastination.

Graeme Cowan’s book 'Back From The Brink', brings you true stories from well-known and everyday people, and practical help for overcoming depression and bipolar disorder.

Touching, moving and often surprising, the stories in Back From The Brink are living proof that you too can overcome depression, using the tools and resources provided in the book.

Cowan survived the worst depression his psychiatrist had ever treated.

Find out more about treating depression with 'Back From The Brink' and how to pre-order your copy.

About the Author
Graeme Cowan

Graeme Cowan is the author of the Back From The Brink book series.

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