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Depression

5 Ways to Get the Benefits of Exercise Even While Depressed

Start super small, and remember that everything counts.

Key points

  • Exercise has been shown to have a significant positive effect on mood in individuals experiencing depression.
  • Yet depression often leads to low energy and thought distortions that can make it harder to start working out.
  • Identifying the barriers that are stopping you from exercising can help you overcome them and get moving.

Swimming and hiking are sharp tools within my mental health arsenal. Even if I still feel low or anxious, after a brief swim, I will almost always sense at least a slight lift. While exercise alone may not be enough to defeat depression, a substantial body of research supports it as an intervention.

A meta-analysis of 41 studies examining the effects of exercise on depression found a pooled large effect size (standard mean deviation of .998) in its use for major depressive disorder (Heissel et al., 2023). For reference, this is a larger effect size than has been found in many trials of antidepressants (Schalkwijk et al., 2014). Findings such as this have sparked a movement toward "lifestyle psychiatry" or the use of significant lifestyle changes as part of a holistic approach to mental health (Firth et al., 2020).

Still, we can only benefit from exercise if we can exercise, and depression seems to create these invisible barriers, making everything much more difficult. There follows are five tricks I've discovered to identify these barriers and walk through them myself.

Barrier: "I'm not up for this today."

On our lowest days, when we might benefit from exercise the most, we probably won't feel like it. We might find ourselves telling ourselves we're too down or just not up for this.

Trick: Start Super Small

This could be a promise of swimming just two laps in the pool and calling victory (if ready to stop after) just knowing that you achieved your goal. It could also be going for a walk just for the length of one song on a music player or doing a 30-second yoga pose.

The idea is to get started. Getting started is the hardest part and, over time, we can begin habits that snowball.

Barrier: "What I can do now won't count for anything."

This thought falls into the cognitive behavioral therapy trap of all-or-nothing thinking. We might think a small amount of exercise won't amount to a huge change and therefore doesn't matter at all.

Trick: Remember Everything Counts

Small amounts of exercise add up over time and build habits. Exercise itself also represents behavioral activation, an intervention for depression.

Barrier: "I can't afford a gym."

Being able to access a gym or community center can be a huge asset to lifestyle changes, yet not everyone has access.

Trick: Explore Resources

Many community centers offer scholarships or other discount programs to individuals in need. Still, gyms are certainly not the only resource for exercise. Going for walks, home workouts, or even trying to river dance along with a video online (as silly as it sounds, it's fun to try) are all pathways to increased activity.

Barrier: "I'm just not a sporty person."

This one strikes my heart. I am a person who knows little to nothing about sports and who learned early on that I am not a natural athlete.

Trick: Motion Is for Everyone

Find a motion that feels right for you. It doesn't have to fall in line with traditional views of what exercise looks like. Your chosen venture could be anything from walking around a mall to climbing a rock-climbing wall. Experiment and find what you enjoy.

Barrier: Not Remembering Any Positives About Exercise

When we are depressed, there is a stronger tendency toward negativity bias. How this shows up with exercise could be only remembering times when exercise did not go well while not recalling positive occurrences.

Trick: Try Something New or Something Nostalgic

If you aren't able to think about positive time exercise, can you think of the fun you've had riding a bike, ice skating, or learning to juggle? All these things are exercise too. Even if you do decide to try a traditional exercise for you, take time after to celebrate the accomplishment.

Conclusion

Exercise has clear known benefits for individuals experiencing depression. Yet depression can make engaging in these activities much more difficult. Identifying and challenging depression's tricks is a step toward overcoming these. In addition, support is available. Practitioners engaging in lifestyle psychiatry as well as many therapists can encourage and guide you as you make these changes. To find help near you, visit the Psychology Today Directory.

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References

Firth, J., Solmi, M., Wootton, R. E., Vancampfort, D., Schuch, F. B., Hoare, E., & Stubbs, B. (2020). A meta‐review of “lifestyle psychiatry”: the role of exercise, smoking, diet and sleep in the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. World psychiatry, 19(3), 360-380.

Heissel, A., Heinen, D., Brokmeier, L. L., Skarabis, N., Kangas, M., Vancampfort, D., & Schuch, F. (2023). Exercise as medicine for depressive symptoms? A systematic review and meta-analysis with meta-regression. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 57:1049-1057.

Schalkwijk, S., Undurraga, J., Tondo, L., & Baldessarini, R. J. (2014). Declining efficacy in controlled trials of antidepressants: effects of placebo dropout. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 17(8), 1343-1352.

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