I remember waking up one spring morning about three years ago agitated from multiple efforts to extract the most aggressive of running shorts wedgies. I had slept in full running gear, boob-smashing sports bra included, and my sneakers were on the floor directly next to my bed, per instructions from my therapist. She was trying to get me to go outside for a jog as soon as I woke up in the morning and this seemed like the path of least resistance.
Let me back up. I went through a phase of mild depression in 2015 after moving to a new city where I knew no one except for the partner who had just broken up with me. Depression feels different to everyone, and mine was basically sad movie-sobbing plus fear intertwined with anxiety—a fun combo platter. So on top of being too exhausted to do much (a common physical symptom of the weepies), I would get really angsty and negative in the morning. I had a bomb ass therapist though, who rocked with me to and through this phase, and one of the things she pushed was exercise.
Exercise is not a cure for any type of mental illness, but it really helps for a lot of people. It made a huge difference for me. “Just getting activated, behaviorally, is a useful treatment for depression,” says Nicholas Forand, assistant professor of psychiatry at Zucker School of Medicine at Hoftsra/Northwell Health. “The act of getting out and engaging in some goal directive behavior and getting some positive feedback—that can help shift the tide a little bit in terms of feeling depressed.” Forand also tells me that aerobic exercise (a.k.a. cardio) has been shown to help people with depression feel better.
Here’s the thing, and I can testify: It’s really hard to get a depressed person to work out. In my mind, exercising was a lot of work and I couldn’t fathom why or how it would enhance my life, which at that point was basically an early Adele album. But my therapist—like any worth their co-pay—was adamant. And her calculated strategies got me out, moving around—even if only for a few minutes—and feeling like a more familiar version of myself. So if you ever find yourself in the situation I was in, here's a little hope in the form of seven ways to get yourself to work out, starting with the running-shorts-to-sleep technique that proved successful for me.
“The hardest thing is task initiation—to get started,” Forand tells me. Give yourself a chance to succeed by setting up your environment in a way where it makes it easier to do the hard thing.” Hence, wearing the running attire to bed. If I’m already dressed, all my depressed, sluggish ass needs to do is to walk out the door. Do whatever you need to do to eliminate all obstacles that could make you want to give up and go back to bed, he says.
“People often say they’re going to wake up at 5:30 and go to the gym when there’s a zero percent chance that that’s actually going to happen. You set yourself up to fail,” he says. And that failure can be incredibly demoralizing. Achieving goals is something that’s crucial to your self-esteem at this time, so don’t play yourself like this. “Set realistic expectations for yourself. What would be a better time to go to the gym? Maybe you feel a little better when you’re coming home from work, or maybe at lunchtime. Arrange it around that instead of doing it at a time where you’re already working against yourself.”
Going to the gym for an hour may feel impossible, adds Amy Serin, neuropsychologist and chief science officer of the TouchPoint Solution, a healthcare tech company, but walking for five minutes outside may feel doable. “Exercise doesn’t have to be a heart-pounding, sweat-dripping experience to be effective,” she says. “Even small amounts of moderate activity can go a long way toward lifting someone out of a depressive funk. And once the first small step is taken, it’s easier to add on to the behavior.”
“It’s easier to build a habit off of old neural pathways that are already established rather than forging new ones,” Serin says. “So if you used to do a kickboxing workout regularly, for example, start with that because the habit can be reactivated easier than starting something totally new. Use your neural networks to your advantage.” Serin assures me that if you weren’t active beforehand, you can still implement exercise into your routine now, but it might take longer.
“If you’re telling yourself the only way to work out is to go to the gym and run on a treadmill for an hour—which sounds horrible to me—of course I’m not going to want to do it,” Forand says. “I like riding my bike. So instead of going to the gym and torturing myself, I ride my bike on the weekend.” There’s no wrong way to be active, he adds, especially if you’re not working out at all. “Any kind of exercise is better than nothing, so you might as well make it interesting to you.”
“You can create short-term motivation by using psychology’s Premack Principle—equivalent to ‘eat your broccoli and you’ll get dessert,’” Serin says. Make a deal with yourself to do something pleasurable or treat yourself if you exercise; the reward can be small or can even be something that’s a regular part of your day (e.g.: “I will walk this morning for at least 15 minutes and then I can text my friends”).
Putting it in your phone’s calendar or setting a realistic plan is an accountability thing, Forand says. What’s even better, though, is to be accountable to someone else. “Sign up for a class and pay money for it. They expect you be there and you’ve got a little bit of skin in the game,” he says. If you can find a workout buddy, that’ll make you less likely to bail since you’d be disappointing someone else. “Or even tell somebody you’re going to do it. Tell someone to hold you accountable.”
“Even simple things can feel like they are impossible when someone is depressed and conjuring up motivation can be really, really difficult,” Serin says. So treat exercising like an experiment and you can potentially use the results to fuel you, since your brain might be predicting that exercising will suck. “Approach it with curiosity,” Forand says. “I’ve asked people to write out their predictions—which are usually negative—and then go try it for a little while and see how accurate their predictions were. Often times, the exercise is pretty self-reinforcing and you feel better afterwards." Serin adds that it's hard to remember the positive when depression strikes, so it’s good to keep a reference to remind you that after exercise your mood really did improve temporarily.