What to do when you want to move your body, but your brain won’t let you.
I f you’ve struggled with depression at any point in your life, you’ve probably heard some well-meaning soul say “just try to get some exercise, it’s good for your mood!” Annoyingly, they’re right; I don’t think that exercise can single-handedly cure depression or treat its symptoms, but it’s clearly helpful for many people who struggle. In the 10 years I spent in the fitness industry, both as a personal trainer with depressed clients and as the depressed client myself, I’ve seen physical activity provide focus, routine, comfort, and even assistance with physical health when it feels like everything else is going to hell.
But there’s one thing that never, ever helps people who are dealing with situational or clinical depression: telling them that exercise will help.
When it comes to having a mental illness, the G.I. Joe doctrine is meaningless: Knowing what will help you isn’t close to half the battle. It’s a tenth of the battle, at best. Most people with depression are already aware — often too aware — of all the things we could or should be doing to combat our condition. But where the well-meaning mentally healthy person sees a straightforward progression toward improvement, we see the paradox: yes, if we could do those things, it might help our depression, but not being able to do those things is a major part of being depressed.
There’s one thing that never helps people with depression: telling them that exercise will help.
The fitness industry talks a lot about “exercise lifehacks for depression!!!”, but it seems to be coming from a place of ignorance about the cold war going on in the average depressed person’s head. Most of these training tips and listicles read like they came from people who have faced very little adversity in their lives, and who think that their own health is entirely the product of their own hard work. Even if that’s not true, these pieces are certainly written by people who haven’t let their hardships add any nuance to their argument. The introductions talk about how great exercise is for you, and then they jump straight to tips on motivation, routine, and the physical activity itself. Those tips aren’t necessarily wrong, but when you’re actually suffering, they sound about as realistic as South Park’s underwear-thieving gnomes. Step 1. Realize that you should exercise. Step 2 ? Step 3. HEALTH!
When you’re depressed, that question mark can be a barely navigable labyrinth of garbage fires fueled by physical and mental exhaustion, self-loathing, defeat, and frustration. The last time I found myself trying to hack through that mess during a particularly dark period, I started to come up with my own list of bare-bones, practical tips to help me face the idea of moving again. Now I’m sharing them, in case they might help someone else in a similar position. I stress the word “might.” If you’re depressed, the last thing you need is another a-hole telling you what you should do. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start, I’ve been there too.
You don’t have to exercise.
Be honest with yourself. Why do you want to exercise? If you’re doing it because it’s a positive step you want to take for your health, that’s great. If it’s something you used to like doing and you think you might enjoy doing it again if you can just push through the misery and inertia? That works, too. If you’re just doing it because you think that you should, though, or if it becomes just another way to punish yourself, that doesn’t work. If you can find an activity that safely works with both your abilities and your mindset, go with that. If you can’t come up with a single plan where the risk inherent in the attempt itself won’t outweigh any benefit you might get from it, then don’t do it. Take a break from the very idea of exercise and come back at it again in a few days to see if your perspective has changed. If not, repeat as necessary. Unless that repetition itself is only exacerbating your depression — then step away from that, too. In short, exercise can’t help with your depression if even thinking about exercise is making you more depressed.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the fitness industry’s unrelenting fixation with finding the best possible exercises, diets, and bodies. It’s easier still to get confused by the constantly shifting goalposts of what constitutes “The Best” within that world. Cardio is in one year and out the next. The ideal glute size keeps shifting. Even the perfect tightness for the pelvic floor is in flux right now. It’s arguable whether or not any of these trends actually help any population, but they’re particularly useless for the depressed exerciser. Ignore them. The perfect exercise is anything that you will actually consider doing. The perfect body is a breathing one. Anything that serves those ends is worth considering. Everything else is noise.
Choose the right venue and plan accordingly.
If you can afford — both in terms of finances and resilience — to go to a gym, and going somewhere else at a specific time helps get you into a feasible routine, or you just happen to like it, go to the gym. If going outside works better for you, find outdoor workouts. If you’d prefer not to leave the house, then get a video, a book, or research other things you can do within the confines of your own space. If you can’t get out of bed, think of things you can do there. Seriously. The barrel roll is regaining popularity in some martial arts and animal-style training, so who’s to say you can’t start with tossing and turning when you can’t do anything else? Even the smallest movement counts as some activity.
The perfect exercise is anything that you will actually do. The perfect body is a breathing one.
Break the entire workout experience into the smallest pieces possible.
I get overwhelmed even more easily than usual when I’m depressed, and all but the smallest things seem insurmountable to me. Which is why I started breaking up every part of my workout, including getting ready and cleaning up after, into tiny pieces, getting rid of any potential stumbling blocks along the way. If getting into workout gear felt like too much effort, I worked out in whatever I was already wearing. It wasn’t entirely pleasant or comfortable, but neither is crawling through mud as part of an obstacle course race, and that’s a socially accepted thing that people do all the time in the name of being fit and tough. If the idea of showering after seemed like too much work on top of everything else, I’d promise myself that I’d could consider my hygiene options again after I was finished. This is potentially gross, but then so are mud races. If a whole workout was intimidating, I’d start with a warm-up and then see how much I felt like I could add to it after that. I usually kept going. But even when I didn’t, I’d still done a decent warm-up.
Find an instruction style that works for you.
Whether you’re learning from a trainer, a video, or a book, seek out material that at least somewhat appeals to your personality. I find both perky cheerleading and bootcamp derision, which are the predominant tones of most exercise material out there, alienating even when I’m at my best, and defeating when I’m not. So I’ve started to seek out smart instruction from people who share my ambivalence and humor toward exercise. I’ve become particularly fond of Rushfit, the DVD series that UFC veteran Georges St-Pierre released a few years ago, because St-Pierre spends most of the workouts laughing about the amount of agony he’s in. Watching one of the world’s most dedicated and gifted athletes attack his workout with such amiable misery turned out to be the kind of motivation I needed. It made me feel better about grumbling through my own workouts and made me want to grumble through another one. Maybe it’s overly romantic of me, but I believe there’s a Rushfit equivalent out there for everyone who wants to exercise. Maybe it’s a yoga app that emphasizes inclusivity and body positivity like Cody or YogaGlo (I haven’t personally tried either, but I’m intrigued by what I’ve seen). Maybe it’s Dance Dance Party Party, the women-only judgement-free dance sessions that take place across the globe. Or maybe it’s a fun running app created by someone with some really smart opinions on fitness, like Naomi Alderman’s Zombies, Run! Whatever it is, once you find your Rushfit, physical fitness won’t suck quite so much for you.
Listen to your body.
If something seriously hurts while you’re exercising, stop doing it. (See point one.) If you’re too tired to execute a move safely and effectively, don’t do it. If you’re pushing yourself beyond your limit out of some misguided effort to prove your worth when you feel like nothing — which is my depression’s preferred way of screwing up exercise — then back off. An unfinished workout only affects today, but an injury could put you out of action for far longer and mess with your head even more. If you’re afraid that you’re not pushing yourself hard enough or cheating, keep this in mind: Depression loves to lie and tell you that you’re doing an insufficient job, but when does it ever tell you that you’ve done enough or too much? If, as a depressed person, you start to worry that you’re pushing yourself too hard during a workout, there’s a good chance that you’re really overdoing it.
Give yourself some credit.
Congratulate yourself for a completed workout. Celebrate the parts of an incomplete workout that you did manage to do. Don’t beat yourself up too much for a workout that you missed or skipped entirely. Tough love is probably the last thing you need at a time like this.
I genuinely don’t believe I’m going too easy on anyone when I say this. As a depressed personal trainer, I’ve done weight training, plyometrics, mixed martial arts training, and running. I once taught six cycling classes in a week on top of all of that other training. I’ve done every sort of burpee workout you could think of. And nothing has ever left me as physically and mentally drained as the simple act of staying alive. So if you’re still here, you’re already doing the hardest workout imaginable. If you want to, when you want to, there’s still time to figure out the rest.