Exercising with Depression: Simplifying Fitness for Mental Wellness

Author: Sam Bowman


For all of us, energy is a limited resource at the best of times. We only have so much capacity to do everything we need in a day – and unfortunately, mental illness can consume most of it.

With depression, even the most simple of tasks can feel like moving mountains. Everyday routine items like getting out of bed, putting on clean clothes, and brushing your teeth can feel as though they aren’t worth the effort. As the depression deepens, exercise is likely the furthest thing from your mind, as it takes more energy than you feel you have – and let’s be clear here, that is completely normal.

However, our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked. Working on one, however hard it may feel, tends to improve the other. You don’t need to push yourself to the point of strain, and it’s crucial that you listen to your body’s limits as you go. But even small attempts at exercising can have a profound impact on your depression, making you feel healthier – and happier – than before.

Let’s talk about how you can navigate the challenge of exercising with depression.

Meet Yourself Where You Are

You don’t have to drive down to a gym to get some exercise. There are a plethora of low-effort, high-impact exercises you can do at home – even from your bed. If you find that you’re too low energy to get out of bed, try doing a quick course of:

Crunches, using pillows for support

Bridges while still under the covers

Leg circles to stretch your legs a bit

Sit and twists to engage your core

Of course, it can also be helpful to carve out a space in your home specifically for exercise. If you don’t currently have a space, try using your garage. Clearing just a small area will allow you to perform a whole bunch of physical exercises that don’t require fitness equipment, like jumping jacks, push-ups, and crunches.

Everyone’s exercise journey is different, and there will be days when you won’t feel like doing it for a variety of reasons. This is expected – so long as you make exercise attainable for yourself when you have the energy, you’ll find it easier to maintain your physical health and improve your mental state.

Keep Your Limits in Mind

The “no pain, no gain” culture around exercise is awfully harmful; and we have a bit of a radically different take for people with depression. Sure, you can feel sore after doing an unfamiliar exercise – but when your body tells you it can’t do something, or to stop, you should absolutely listen.

A wide variety of factors contribute to whether you’ll be able to perform specific exercises regularly. Age, weight, and disabilities all contribute to this, and you may find that some things you try are just not for you.

When you discover an exercise that seems more harmful than helpful, don’t be discouraged – remember, this is also expected. Instead, try to find something else to replace it. There are a wide variety of options to make exercise accessible; you just have to find what’s right for you.

Give Yourself a Break

The common through-line of this article is patience. Patience with yourself, your circumstances, and a mind that is actively working against you.

There’s a lot of stigma around mental health, and that stigma often contributes to making our experience worse. When you feel at your lowest, give yourself time to rest and recover – and then, when you feel you can try something new, try one of the low-effort exercises listed above.

It’s a cheesy-sounding adage, but it’s true: progress starts with a single small step. When you’re ready, take that first step – it’ll be easier to take the next one, and the next one. Until suddenly, you’re back on your feet entirely. Best of luck.

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