I felt my absolute lowest in 2022, but didn’t take action until I started to gain substantial weight. I was fairly skinny throughout my childhood and college years. But, towards the latter half of 2021, my body transformed. Once I wasn't trekking through campus as a college student and eating next to nothing, I began to gain weight. I initially didn’t find it concerning, but later realized that my weight was becoming a more significant issue due to a depressive-like episode that lasted most of 2022.
While I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with depression, I felt sad and extremely tired for several months. With the new stresses of working full-time, freelancing, and losing a parent in 2022, I found comfort in eating junk food to help me cope with my feelings. I knew I was gaining more weight than normal, but I wasn’t doing anything to stop it. Instead of finding healthy outlets to cope with these significant life changes, I took on more work than I could handle and ate unhealthy foods.
It wasn’t until December 2022, two years into my weight gain, that I adopted healthy habits. I wasn’t happy with how I felt or looked and knew I needed a better way to manage my feelings. I’m also a full-time freelancer, so I’m always at home, which can be lonely at times. So I figured the gym would be a great way to get out and be around others. After two trial visits to the gym with my boyfriend, I got a gym membership and began a clean diet.
Some days, I don’t feel my best, but I remind myself of the goal I’m working towards: optimal health both inside and out. I then throw on my favorite gym outfit and head to the gym.
Consistency is an issue for me because symptoms of depression can zap my motivation. But, I fight through it because I know how much I want to feel better.
With depression or depressive-like symptoms, getting the energy and motivation to work out can be challenging. Sometimes, you may not even want to get out of bed or change into your gym clothes. But, don't worry, you're not alone.
Fortunately, overcoming your symptoms is not impossible. Implementing the right strategies can make physical activity part of your weekly routine. I asked psychology experts to share their thoughts and advice on gaining the courage to work out while dealing with depression.
Keep reading to learn how depression affects exercise, and how you can gain motivation to work out while managing your symptoms.
What Is Depression?
Also known as major depressive disorder, depression is a common mood disorder. Depression can affect your feelings, thoughts, and abilities to do daily activities. Having depression can impact your relationships, work, and personal interests. To receive a diagnosis of depression, you must show symptoms for at least two weeks.
The symptoms of depression can include:
Recurring feelings of sadness, anxiousness, or emptiness
Loss of interest
Low energy or fatigue
Difficulties concentrating or remembering things
Changes in appetite or unexplained weight loss or gain
Thoughts of death or suicide
How Depression Affects Working Out
When you experience depression, adopting healthy habits like exercising can become challenging. You may not have the energy or excitement to hop on the treadmill, and that’s completely normal. With depression, exercising may never even cross your mind, or you dismiss the idea when it pops up.
“It is often the case that people who have depression don’t feel like working out, and even the most basic of tasks — just getting out of bed in the morning — is an extreme chore,” says Lee Bare, Ph.D., and licensed psychologist.
As mentioned above, the symptoms of depression can affect your mood, energy levels, and sleep, decreasing the likelihood of any motivation to exercise. Also, when you’re depressed, chances are, you’re not looking for ways to relieve your symptoms.
Although I haven’t been diagnosed with depression, I felt extremely sad and would have my feelings hurt by the simplest things. I also have an autoimmune disease, so I feel super exhausted some mornings, which can affect my emotions. Finding the motivation to exercise was and is a challenge for me, so it may take several attempts to find a method that’s suitable for you.
One of the best methods to get me out of bed was my support system. My boyfriend, an avid gym-goer, motivates me to work out and always compliments me on the efforts I put into the gym. I also appreciate that he doesn’t force me to go to the gym, which gives me control to make my own decisions. Having someone who can support you, like my boyfriend, can motivate you to work out with depressive symptoms.
I’m still relatively new to the gym, so I stick to going every other day to ensure I don’t burn out. I only stay for about 45 minutes to an hour for each visit. Of course, every day isn’t easy, but I try to reward myself for being consistent.
The Catch-22: How Exercise Eases Depression Symptoms
You may not feel motivated to work out when you’re depressed, but moving your body impacts your brain in many positive ways. Engaging in physical activity can release endorphins, which are feel-good brain chemicals. With an increase in endorphins, you may see improvements in your mood.
Also, a 2019 study suggests that physical activity can aid in managing depression symptoms. Yet, for exercise to be part of the treatment of depression symptoms, researchers mention that people must motivate themselves to work out. You have to engage in regular exercise to see long-term results in symptom management. And there’s the conundrum.
Aside from relieving mood-related symptoms of depression, exercising has additional health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, protection against conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and improving sleep.
Getting the Motivation to Work Out With Depression
Some days, you may wake up and just want to stay in bed all day. The thought of getting up, putting on gym clothes, and making the walk or drive to the gym makes you shudder in fear. I know the feeling, and it can be tough to fight through those emotions to become motivated. You know the importance of being physically active and how it can improve your mental health, but your depression keeps you from taking the first step.
Marija Marinkovic, an LCSW and psychotherapist on the medical review board of The Roots of Loneliness Project, says that an imbalance in certain brain chemicals — serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins — can cause depression, which can impact your motivation to work out.
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls energy, mood, appetite, and sleep,” says Marinkovic. “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure, reward, and motivation. The reduced levels of serotonin and dopamine can lead to depression and low energy levels.
“Endorphins are natural mood-boosters and painkillers. They’re released in response to physical activity,” adds Marinkovic.
Marinkovic also notes that with depression, you are: “likely to direct [your] attention to negative emotional social stimuli.”
According to Dr. Bare, the main characteristic of depression is a lack of energy. Alongside feelings of worthlessness and sadness, Dr. Bare says these factors can impact your ability to work out or do other tasks.
Depression can cause physical symptoms that make it challenging to exercise. “Since depression can trigger some physical symptoms, such as headaches and muscle aches, those discomforts can make it difficult to engage in exercise,” says Marinkovic.
With this in mind, it can be difficult to become motivated to work out because of lingering symptoms of depression that you must overcome.
With an understanding of how your depression affects your ability to work out, here are some methods to help you get moving.
Give yourself incentives: Incorporating a reward system to work out can motivate you to exercise. Consider what incentives can encourage you to work out, like cute new leggings or permission to stream a movie and do nothing else. For me, thinking about buying new gym clothes or taking myself to my favorite restaurant are incentives to work out.
Make time in your schedule to work out: One of the main reasons people don’t stick to an exercise schedule is that they don’t have enough time. To stick with an exercise routine, select days and times when you can commit to working out.
Some studies reveal that breaking a sweat in the morning may improve your symptoms of depression. For example, a 2015 study involving female police officers suggests a morning workout can improve mental health. Another study shows that working out in the morning can boost your energy levels, increasing your productivity and reducing stress.
Get a workout buddy: Find someone, like a friend, family member, or coworker, you can exercise with to hold you accountable. A certified personal trainer also makes a fantastic motivational coach and accountability cheerleader.
Make it fun: Exercising doesn’t have to be a forceful and dreadful experience. Marinkovic suggests taking bike rides, signing up for exercise classes, or watching YouTube videos to keep things interesting.
Take it slow: You don’t want to go too hard as a beginner when you start working out, as you can drain your energy levels fast. “Do not engage in all or none; you’ll burn out quickly,” says Marinkovic.
Keep gym items within sight: Turning sadness into gym motivation can be hard. To keep exercise on your mind, Marinkovic recommends doing small things, like placing your gym shoes by your door or prepping your gym outfit the night before.
Why Does Motivation Help With Exercise?
You may wonder why motivation is necessary to encourage you to work out with depression. To adapt to a new behavior, such as exercising, you need to have the motivation to do so. Whether it’s to become more active, lose weight, or become more social, it’s crucial to have motivational factors in place.
If you want to motivate yourself to lose weight while managing depression, try intrinsic motivation, or the enjoyable actions you do because they’re pleasurable. You develop intrinsic motivation to do something you want because you like it, not because someone else tells you to do it.
For example, if you enjoy swimming or cooking new healthy recipes, you have intrinsic motivation to do them because they’re preferred activities that can make you healthier. These new interests can lead to rewards like regulating depression symptoms and weight loss.
Therapy Can Help Increase the Motivation to Work Out With Depression
Getting professional help can give you the initial push to start working out. Dr. Bare recommends that people living with depression may benefit from a therapist who encourages them to adopt healthy habits.
“People with depression often need treatment [with therapy and/or medication], and therapists often work with them on increasing behaviors, like working out or healthy eating, that can also help improve mood,” says Dr. Bare.
“There’s no wrong way to be active and any kind of exercise is better than none,” says Marinkovic. Don’t beat yourself up and practice self-empathy. Be patient with yourself. If you skip a class or workout here and there, remember, it’s okay!”
If you need a human accountability partner who can help motivate you every day, sign up for a free consultation with a personal trainer.