Depression and Exercise: Getting Started in the Right Direction

woman-tying-sports-shoeI have heard countless times that depression is anger turned inward. I see the point, but I tend to see it not just as anger turned inward, but energy turned inward. Like everything in life, balance is key. Energy flows in when we sleep, and energy is meant to flow out in balance—to flow into our relationships, our meaningful work, our interests and hobbies. When we have more energy flowing in than out, we get stagnant, frustrated, and ultimately depressed. Fortunately, there is no need for pills for this type of depression.

Depression is a difficult topic to discuss, mainly because the term “depression” is often misunderstood. Depression in the clinical sense is an all-encompassing, overwhelming feeling of sadness and lack of energy to do even the most mundane tasks. I have seen people so deep in an actual clinical depression that they were nearly catatonic. More often—much more often—I see people who are experiencing mild to moderate depression and/or frustration. For these people, exercise is enormously beneficial.

Exercise can protect you from future struggles with depression. Why? Because when you are exercising regularly, you are maintaining the flow of energy outward and maintaining balance. Also, you are building self-esteem from a series of small successes—say, from completing a daily exercise routine. Self-esteem will give you a healthy sense of outrage if your life starts to take another difficult turn.

“But I’m depressed,” you say. “I don’t have the energy for exercise.”

Yeah, you do. Start small—very small—and build slowly but progressively. Celebrate small successes and refrain from comparing your journey to anyone else’s.

Tips on starting an exercise program to help with depression:

  1. Talk to your doctor to make sure you are physically healthy enough to do the exercise you are planning to do.
  2. Choose small, achievable goals where you can build on your success. There are hundreds of free apps where the work is progressive, building on the previous day’s success. If you start out on day one trying to do 100 squats, you’re likely to hurt yourself and your chances of staying with it are zero. By starting with small, simple goals and building progressively, you and your family learn how to incorporate this new routine into your life. This cuts down on a lot of resistance.
  3. Think about what you want from your exercise time: Do you need more time for yourself or do you feel lonely and want a workout buddy? Your exercise time is yours to shape in any way that meets your needs.
  4. Don’t share your plans with your Facebook friends or significant other(s). This is important! In the words of the Nike ad: Just do it. Talking about your plans—what you’re going to do—sets you up for feelings of shame if you happen not to achieve that goal. You don’t need that if you’re treating depression. Exercise is something you do for yourself, not anyone else. Keeping it to yourself keeps your motivation coming from within.
  5. Talk to your significant other(s) about the time you need—which is different from talking about your exercise plans. If your family is used to having your attention at any given moment, this may be hard. Give them advance notice and stick to your schedule as much as possible. Sure, situations may come up where you can’t stick to your plan, but as this will be a learning experience for your family, keep in mind that sticking to the plan will help them adjust to your new routine so that it isn’t a huge amount of emotional energy to get out the door.

Have you or someone you know used exercise to help with depression? I welcome your thoughts and comments!

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kelly Baez, PhD, LPC, NCC, therapist in Atlanta, Georgia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Heather

    Heather

    July 29th, 2013 at 10:48 AM

    Oh wow this is such a personal story for me because exercise saved my life in so many ways.

    A few years ago, I was overweight, depressed, and in general wondering what I had been put on this earth to do. I really had very little motivation to do anything with my life so I knew that I couldn’t do anything for anyone else either. But I had had it with being fat and angry so I decided to try a new approach. I bought me some tennis shoes and just started walking. With that few first steps, my whole outlook changed, and you can guess the rest. With the changed outlook came a loss in weight, an increase in energy and a boost in self confidence that I had been lacking. I am so thankful that I was finally able to open my eyes to the possibilities that life has, and so much of that has come about just because I amde it a priority to start moving again.

  • M.K

    M.K

    July 29th, 2013 at 7:37 PM

    Have a friend who is going through a very tough time in her life.She is clearly depressed (although the moderate kind as you describe). I think exercise can help her because this entire too much energy inward-I see that in her. She seems lost. I hope she takes my advice, will pass on this article to her too. Thank you for this and especially at the right time for me to offer help!

  • Donna

    Donna

    July 30th, 2013 at 4:26 AM

    @ Heather- I really need someone like you in my life everyday to get my butt up and moving!

  • abram

    abram

    July 30th, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    exercise is the last thing id wanna do when im depressed or sad.come on how can you even pick yourself up and go exercise when things take up your mental focus and youre not at rest?id love to be able to do that but it sounds a little illogical to me.now of course doing the opposite may fetch you dividends but as humans if we could jump farther or run faster we would be winning olympic medals too!but you or i cannot!

  • Jackie

    Jackie

    September 24th, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Walking outdoors helps more than being stuck inside a gym.Sometimes you can overdo the amount of exercise and it can make the depression worse for a few days until your body recovers, so monitor how well you feel the next day.Yoga helps , forward bends calm an anxious mind and other poses help to release stuck emotions.

  • Marilyn

    Marilyn

    January 6th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    I have and it is hard to get motivated sometimes but once u do it and stick to it, you feel so much better. I hate when I cant exercise now because I am in pain if I don’t. I started out with water therapy swimming in a salt water pool which is the best for arthritis It is warm an amazing especially when the sun comes streaming in throught the window.

  • Gerald

    Gerald

    June 10th, 2014 at 4:49 PM

    Back in 1993 I had a six-month depression/anxiety episode. I finally pulled through with medication and exercise. I still take anxiety medication and run almost daily. 14 marathons and I feel great.

  • Indi

    Indi

    June 29th, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    After battling severe depression (not being able to leave my couch, my house, sleeping 8 hours a day on top of my 10 hours a night) due to PTSD. I forced myself to start exercising. At first I told myself to start with 15minutes and then I could return to the sanctuary of my coach and sleep the rest of the day. I stuck to it, and yes it was terribly difficult…I would just cry and sleep…I would run right to my couch as soon as I was done….eventually my 15 minutes grew to 20, 30, 45, 1 hour. Here I am 8 months later ( yes this requires faith and patience) attend boot camp for both the social interaction and physical movement 5-6 days a week for 1 hour, I walk my dogs – mile every day, I’m a better wife to my amazing supportive husband, and I have dropped 65lbs, increased my energy so much that I can barely handle taking a nap during her day. It works …it’s your natural Prozac

  • Charlene

    Charlene

    January 30th, 2015 at 8:36 AM

    Very true. I felt juat like you after my sweet hubby died way to early. I was so upset. I made myself go for a walk. Now it’s almost 2years later I’m running 8miles!!when I’m asked if i am still walking i proudly say yes i am. I’m never going back to that other place!!😊

  • Keely

    Keely

    August 19th, 2015 at 10:30 PM

    Thank you so much for your post you have inspired me to put my running shoes on again – thank you so much x

  • Ryan

    Ryan

    July 7th, 2015 at 12:35 AM

    Honestly, I’m up late reading depression help sites because I’m having a REALLY hard time and have been for well over 14 years.

    I am REALLY tired of two things:
    1. Advice to “talk to my significant other” about my depression. Thanks, a million internet articles, for pointing our that I am completely isolated and don’t have the tools to even begin to think about forming a bond with another real human.
    2. Stop telling me “I know it might have been months, but this won’t last forever!” Months. A year. 3 years. All of these sites are encouraging someone who’s JUST gone down this rabbit hole to have hope.

    Where is the internet help for 15+ years of self inflicted isolation? My entire adulthood is gone. Where’s the article for me? You talk about fighting shame but all of these articles are like… This sweet downhill ride of good advice with derailment waiting at the bottom. “This all sounds good, but – Wait, spend more time with my nonexistant wife and kids?” BAM! Derailed. “What’s that, article? I can be back to normal in no time? What if the last time I felt normal I was f***ing 17 years old?”

    I am so incredibly tired of this garbage.

  • Miss Madelyn

    Miss Madelyn

    January 1st, 2016 at 7:32 PM

    Agreed. Wholeheartedly agreed. Last time I felt normal was 12. Now I’m almost 35 and reading these articles justs reminds me of how inept I am because apparently there are people with depression who have super powers who can rise above their chemical malfunction. I am not that superpowered human and so I only feel worse.

  • Lucy gucy

    Lucy gucy

    March 21st, 2016 at 4:59 AM

    Hey Ryan and Madelyn. I hear you.. because my depression swings from mild to not so mild and depending where I am allows me to get the advice or want to scream at it… I have also accepted that sometimes I can’t move forward without some meds, my condition is a roller coaster ride and I have made the best of it most of the time. I try to enjoy the good days and appreciate that I have limited responsibility, I’m retired, kids grown, on my bad days to sleep and do nothing if that’s how I feel…I have also gotten comfortable being introverted and not mind being home a lot.. I read, crochet, color, restore and chalk paint nice pieces of furniture. I have learned to accept my disability for what it is or I would not survive. I also know On my bad days, I know I will have good days again so that helps.. I have also had very long runs and that is debilitating, so I get that too.. There are many days I force myself to get dressed and get out even just to go to the store it always helps my mood some and than I’m glad I did it.

  • Aldora

    Aldora

    June 26th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Yes. I was feeling extremely depressed. However, I know that I did not want to use medication to heal my depression. I used exercise & it saved me also.

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