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Exercise for Depression: Making it Possible


Exercise for Depression: Making it Possible

July 12, 2023

Numerous studies have identified exercise as a key factor in reducing depression symptoms. A recent study strengthens the argument by finding that when compared to age, race, gender, body mass index cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes, it was the sedentary lifestyle of a depressed person that alone accounted for about 25% of the risk of heart-related deaths. The message is that we need to move because our lives depend on it!

The problem is that when you are depressed quite often the last thing you want to do is exercise.

Given the despair, lethargy, self-doubt, exhaustion, disinterest in activities and shame experienced with depression, the suggestion to exercise feels like adding insult to injury. “I’m not exercising because I’m depressed.”

Knowing exercise could help, but feeling unable to do so often adds to the self-recriminations and low self-esteem of depression.  In one case, the more the young woman watched other family members exercise – the less possible it felt.

Depression’s Landscape.

Given the recent discussions of the pros and cons of medications and treatments for depression, it seems clear that people need to have information and treatment options. It also seems important to stack the deck toward feeling better with anything that might work for you. If you have wanted to exercise but find it impossible – here are some suggestions.

Suggestions for Exercising When It Feels Impossible

Don’t think Exercise – Think Movement with Motivation

Forget comparing yourself with the neighbor who jogs – start with a simple plan of moving, do it on your time and tie it to something you love.

  • Park and Walk: If there is a store you like to shop in, start your movement slowly by parking a little farther from the door each day. Plan this small but very big step, keep a tally – you will be surprised.
  • Talking with A Friend: Call for someone or have someone call for you and plan to walk even for only one block. Before you start give yourself permission to stop and turn back. You are in charge.
  • Choosing Support: There is power and motivation in the company of others, especially people who have an agenda similar to yours.  In the case of two women who could not find a neighbor to walk with they came up with a plan of driving to each other’s neighborhood twice a week because they really wanted to talk to each other – they happened to also be walking.
  • Book Worm: Walk around your yard, your block or in a safe place listening to an audio book for 10 minutes. Only listen to the audio book while walking, standing, cleaning etc.
  • Re-runs Instead of Running: One man started walking on the old treadmill in the basement to watch re-runs of shows he loved. That way he wasn’t thinking of walking.
  • The Brain on Music:  In his book on this topic, Daniel Levitin  discusses the fact that music has a powerful impact on brain stimulation. If you love certain music let it be your road out. Put on your earphones and turn the music on and it will help you put on your sneakers, open the door and start moving. Dance, vacuum, walk, ride a stationary bike to music. Choose a track that you only allow yourself to listen to when moving.
  • Visualize the Reward: I have an uncle who started walking to a bakery each morning. The whole way he visualized the muffin and coffee he planned to buy. He is still walking.

Don’t Exercise for You – Help Someone You Love

Often we will leap tall buildings for those we love. Helping your children, grandchildren, partner, or pet may be the motivation that makes the thought of exercising necessary and therefore possible.

Children, Exercise and Mental Health- A recent analysis of 73 studies in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that physical activity significantly reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychological distress, low-self esteem and emotional disturbance in children and adolescents ranging in age from 3 to 17 years.

A young widow with two school aged children “dragged” herself and the children from the couch to walk to the park numerous times a week those first months after her husband’s death. Despite her reluctance and their moaning and complaints on the way – the trip was always worth the fight with herself to make it happen.

Enhance the Romance – Many couples have found that the only opportunity to be away from everyone and every social media interruption is the routine walk in the morning, after dinner etc. Often one or the other is reluctant. When you push yourself to do it for him/her and fight your own resistance – you gain in many ways.

Pay Back the Pet – No one questions the benefits we get from pets. One of them is the reality that people who own pets tend to be healthier and less depressed for a number of reasons, one of which is the exercise of walking them.  When depressed, however, even that can seem like too much to do. It is so much easier to just open the door and let them out- BUT- your pet’s need to be walked may be something you are willing to push yourself to do. If so, everyone wins.

In one case a man on a new antidepressant medication felt so off and so worried that nothing would help lift the cloud, that all he wanted to do was work for a few hours and then sleep for a few hours – but there was his beagle, Lincoln, standing at the front door staring at him.  The thought of walking was bad enough – the dog park seemed impossible but he couldn’t resist.  Every day he got up and he and Lincoln walked to the dog park. It was part of the journey out of depression. Thank you, Lincoln.

Anyone who has suffered with depression knows the fear of never feeling better.  Even the smallest step of mastery, however, is a large antidote to hopelessness.

You deserve the very best – try to tie movement and exercise to something you like or for someone you love. It just might help.

For Further Reading:

Ahn, S. & Fedewa,A.L. (2011). A Meta-analysis of the relationship between children’s physical activity and mental health, Journal of Pediatric Psycholgy,36,385-397.

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

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