One of the most common symptoms of depression is a lack of energy and feeling tired nearly every day. At the same time, one of the most effective treatments for depression is regular physical exercise. It almost seems like a cruel joke that when you’re experiencing the lowest amount of energy, you’re supposed to sweat and pant and jump your way out of it. Creating an exercise routine is a challenge whenever you decide to do it, but when going through depression, taking a short walk can feel like mountain climbing. Luckily, there are many tricks available that will make it much easier to exercise, even when going through depression. This article includes well-used techniques from behaviour therapy to help you get started. It also tells you about common mistakes when creating an exercise routine, to help you avoid the pitfalls.
After a few weeks with these techniques, you may notice the many benefits of using exercise as depression treatment, including:
- Increased protection against depression, Alzheimers and other diseases
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to manage strong emotions
- Improved concentration
- Improved memory
- Better sleep
- Money left in your wallet (exercise is free!)
Take a look at this video, explaining the important connection between exercise and depression:
How much exercise is enough to treat depression?
Regular exercise is just as effective as antidepressant medication or psychotherapy for treating depression. Additionally, physical exercise is the only antidepressant strategy that has an immediate effect on depressive symptoms. A sweaty walk increases mood and concentration right away, whereas antidepressant medications usually need several weeks to work.
So, how much exercise is necessary to treat depressive symptoms? Is it enough to do some stretching or do you need daily spin classes to recover from depression? Well, the answer is somewhere in between. It’s important to work up a sweat, but not to become completely exhausted. Regular power walking is an excellent strategy for treating depressive symptoms.
Neuroscientists Dr. Julia C. Basso and Dr. Wendy Suzuki explain the effects of exercise on mood, cognition and neurophysiology in their science review from 2017. Also, Basso & Suzuki give us the exact recipe for using exercise as depression treatment:
30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week is enough to treat depression
You don’t need more than that. But if you’re a complete beginner, my recommendation is to start much, much smaller than this recipe (find out more in the section ‘How to exercise when going through depression’ below). A common mistake that most people make when creating a new exercise routine is overdoing it, which brings us to the next section.
Common mistakes with exercise and depression
Before we learn how to use the connection between exercise and depression to our advantage and create a new exercise routine, let’s put some focus on what NOT to do.
- Don’t make your workouts too lengthy when depressed. When depressed, it’s common to compare yourself to how much you could do before becoming depressed and to criticise yourself harshly if you fail to live up to those expectations. As mentioned earlier, a short walk can feel like mountain climbing when going through depression. If you have this problem, please remember that it’s not your fault. Lacking energy is to be expected when going through depression. Still, depressed people are often tormented by thoughts such as, “This is not good enough”, “I should be able to do better”, “I can’t even take a walk, what a failure”. These critical thoughts can make people force themselves to set goals that are way too challenging, for example expecting to go jogging for 45 minutes when a 10-minute walk would be more appropriate. So, you need to take this into account when starting your exercise routine. DON’T make your workouts too lengthy. If you’re a beginner, rather aim for a 10-minute walk than a 90-minute spin class and add a few minutes every time you go out.
- Don’t leave your goals unspecified. Why is it so difficult to achieve a regular exercise routine? Why is the gym packed with people in January, but echoing empty in March? Well, the most common mistake when creating a new routine or setting a new goal, is to not make it specific enough. “Getting healthier”, “Jogging twice a week” and “Start power walking on Monday” are examples of vague goals that need to be more specific. If too many variables are left unspecified, it’s easier to push your exercise session into the future. Two common symptoms of depression are a loss of interest in daily activities and having difficulty making decisions, which means that it will be more challenging to spontaneously decide where and how to exercise when dealing with depression. Take this into account when starting your exercise treatment and make sure to decide in advance how and when to move your body. The section ‘How to exercise when going through depression’ will show you exactly how to make your exercise routine specific enough.
- Don’t exercise too hard when dealing with depression. A common mistake when starting a new exercise routine is to make it too complicated or too difficult. Motivation is usually highest during the first week of a new routine and after that, motivation wanes. This may result in a person signing up for advanced dance classes, but only completing the first lesson of a 10-week course or another person running 15 miles during their first exercise-week and then taking a 10-month break. The human mind is simply not made for very complicated or too challenging goals. The solution is to NOT make decisions based on motivation, but to break long-term goals into smaller, achievable goals. The section below will tell you how to do this.
- Don’t start with too many things at once. When you decide to start exercising, make sure to make it your number one goal and stick to it for at least two months before making another commitment. A common mistake is to think of an exercise routine as your “new life” where everything you do is super-healthy. You may sign up for a gym card and simultaneously go on a complicated diet while also starting singing lessons. Too much. This overloaded system is purely based on motivation and, as mentioned earlier, motivation quickly wanes. On the contrary, successful routines are built one small step at a time.
- Don’t exclude your friends and family. If you can, start your exercise routine together with other people. When we make a commitment to a friend or family member, we are less likely to cancel than if we only have to answer to ourselves. Additionally, working out together means socializing, which is also antidepressant. Another benefit is that it may increase the ‘observer effect’. It means that we usually perform better when we are being observed by others. If you don’t have a person in your life who is interested in exercise, another possible solution is to take a class with other people. Or get a dog (a big one who needs a lot of walks).
How to exercise when going through depression: Building a routine that lasts
So far, we’ve learned what not to do and what usually goes wrong. The rest of this article will focus on how to create an exercise routine that actually lasts longer than a week and that can be maintained during a depressive episode. As depression usually leads to a loss of motivation and energy, it’s especially important to:
- Make your routine as specific as possible (so you don’t have to rely on motivation to keep it)
- Start with small steps (rather begin with a short walk than intense cardio)
- Reward yourself after completing a step (no matter how small you may think it is)
This video will show you a simple but brilliant technique for creating goals that are possible to reach. Later, we’ll use this theory to build an exercise routine suitable for depression:
As you’ve probably figured out by now, creating an exercise routine for depression means:
- Looking into the future (perhaps 6 months ahead)
- Setting a specific goal for that future
- Taking a small step today, towards that future goal
The first step of your new exercise routine is making it specific. Try looking into the future (about 6 months from now). First of all, you should decide what type of exercise you would like to engage in, in the future. It could be walking, swimming, cycling, gardening, rowing, kickboxing, climbing trees, dancing or something else. Ask yourself this question and write down your answer:
- What kind of exercise would I like to engage in, in the future (about 6 months from now)?
Good. Did you write it down? If not, give it another try.
Next step towards specificity is to decide on what days of the week you would like to exercise. As mentioned earlier, 30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week is an antidepressant routine, so you may want to pick at least three different days. For example, maybe Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are appropriate for 30 minutes of exercise in your future. Ask yourself this question and write down your answer:
- On what days of the week will I exercise (about 6 months from now)?
Did you write it down? Nice work.
Next step towards a SMART exercise routine for depression is to make it measurable. You need to know when you’ve completed important milestones on the road to your future goal. For example, if your long-term goal is to take a 30-minute walk every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, your first milestone might be to take a 30-minute walk every Wednesday for three weeks. When the time comes, it should be clear whether you have reached the milestone or if you need to adjust your goal. So, ask yourself these questions and write down your answers:
- What will be my first “milestone” on my quest for regular exercise (something to achieve in a few weeks or a couple of months)?
- By what date would I like to have achieved that?
Nice work. Now, mark that date in your calendar, set 2-3 alarms and tell a friend to remind you about it.
As mentioned earlier, it’s common for depressed people to compare themselves with how much they could achieve before becoming depressed. That’s why it’s extra important to take depression into account when deciding what your future exercise routine should look like. To determine if your 6-month goal and you first milestone is attainable, ask yourself these questions:
- Are these goals realistic or did I go too far beyond the bounds of possibility?
- Are these goals challenging, but reasonable?
We already know that exercising regularly is relevant for depression treatment, but perhaps it’s also important to you in other ways? For example, exercising can give you other health benefits, such as a reduced risk of diabetes, Alzheimers or cardiovascular disease. It can mean a sense of accomplishment or bring more energy and strength to your life. To find out the relevance of your future goal, ask yourself this question and write down your answer:
- In what way is regular exercise important to me?
This may be the most important part of building a realistic exercise routine for depression. Many routines quickly fall apart because they’re not bound to a specific date and could therefore easily be pushed forward into a distant future. That’s why you need to decide by what date you would like to have achieved your regular exercise routine (note that I’m referring to the full long-term goal here, not just the first “milestone” that you already chose a date for). For example, you may decide that before the first of December you would like to take regular 30-minute walks every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Now, ask yourself this question and write down the answer:
- By what date would I like to have achieved the full long-term goal?
Mark that date in your calendar and set 2-3 alarms to remind you about it.
Last step: Evaluation.
It’s really smart to set a date for evaluating your routine, to make sure you’re on the right track. Perhaps you decide to evaluate when you’re halfway through? You may realise that everything is going according to plan, that you’re making progress faster than expected, or that the goal wasn’t as attainable as you thought and that you need to adjust it. Now, ask yourself this question and write down your answer:
- When would be a good time for me to evaluate my exercise routine?
Good work. Mark that date in your calendar, set 2-3 alarms and tell a friend to remind you about it.
The next section will help you take the first small step towards your long-term SMART goal.
Your first step towards regular exercise
Now that you know where you’re heading, it’s time to direct your focus back to the present and choose a reasonable first step to take today or within a few days. Remember to start small. Dealing with depressive symptoms on a daily basis is already a big challenge and you need to take that into account when deciding on a short-term goal. Rather choose something that seems too easy on your first week, than something too challenging. Here are a few examples:
- Take a sweaty 10-min walk 🏃🏽
- Take a sweaty 30-min walk 🏃♂️
- Do 15-30 minutes of power cleaning 🚮
- Do 10-15 mins of exercise poses from YouTube👨🏻💻
- Play Wii for 30 mins 🕹
- Swim/cycle for 10-30 minutes 🏊🚴🏽
- Play sports with friends/enemies ⚽️
- Try a new gym class 🥊
- Play favourite music and dance for 10-20 minutes 🤘
- Find a random dog/goat and play with it for 10-20 minutes 🐶
When you’ve decided on a reasonable workout to do within a few days, ask yourself these questions to make your short-term goal SPECIFIC and MEASURABLE:
- Where will you do it? (For example, where do you go for a walk?)
- When will you do it? (As soon as possible is recommended. Maybe tomorrow or within a few days?)
- And for how long?
- Are you doing this alone or with a friend? (With whom?)
- What could stop you from doing this? (For example, thoughts, work assignments, kids, anxiety, feeling tired etc.)
- So, what’s plan B?
- To be able to really commit to this first step, I suggest you tell an important person in your life about this goal. It could be anybody: a friend, relative, teacher or doctor. Whom can you tell about this goal?
- How will you reward yourself after completing your first step?
- Why is this short-term goal important to you?
Write down your answers! Mark the date in your calendar, set 2-3 alarms and tell a friend to remind you about it.
All you need to do now is congratulate yourself. Today, you have built a reasonable exercise routine for depression. Make sure to celebrate properly. And if you want to learn some antidepressant techniques for creating new habits with minimal effort, take a look at Treating depression at home with 3 basic techniques from behaviour therapy. If you’re interested in having a virtual therapist guide you through your exercise treatment, check out the depression app from Flow Neuroscience. It’s 100% free and includes over 50 therapy sessions for depression.
Thank you for your attention and best of luck!