Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.
— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
Of the many cruelties of depression, none is more insidious than its ability to take away all of your weapons against it. Almost by definition, depression is a self-feeding beast. It saps you of the energy, will, and desire to do the basic tasks to make you feel human: eating good food, getting good sleep, seeing good people, moving your body. Being out in the world.
I’m lucky that depression has decided to take a backseat for a while, though anxiety is a monster I still struggle to contain. My lifesaver these last few years has been running. I will not pretend that a person in the throes of mental illness can simply put on a t-shirt and shoes and exercise their crisis away. But I have found that, once the crisis is contained and treatment is underway, an exercise routine can be a stabilizing element, and sometimes provide much-needed joyous experiences.
The most important thing is to find what works for you. Here’s what’s worked for me.
Remember that you never regret a workout. Okay, maybe not never. But no matter how I feel when I start, most of the time I feel better—less worn out, less anxious, more proud of myself—and I almost never feel worse. And when my bed is super comfy or I’m just tired of the world, this is the number one thing that gets me to work out anyway: I remind myself that I won’t regret it.
Even a little bit is better than nothing. Not every workout is going to be your best. If you’re really not feeling it and can only do 10 minutes, do 10 minutes. You’ll feel like you tried, which is better than feeling like you gave up.
Plan for failure. I’m going to go against most motivational advice here, which generally says to set clear, achievable goals and then accomplish them. This makes complete sense and does not work for me at all. I need to trick myself a little bit, allow myself an out so I don’t fall apart and give up when I inevitably fail.
Here’s how it works in practice: I set goals I know I can’t reach so I don’t feel bad when I fall short, and in the process of trying I make a lot of progress. My weekly workout schedule calls for six days of working out and one day of rest: a long run on Sunday, medium runs Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and cross training Tuesday/Thursday. If I make it, great! Most weeks I don’t, but that means I still end up with four or five. Some weeks I only get one or two, or nothing at all. But when I allow myself room for these “failures,” they don’t really set me back. You could call it the “land among the stars” approach.
Don’t expect exercising to magically make you happy. Nothing is a cure-all for depression. In fact, nothing is a cure-all for life. A lot of the times, life is mediocre, and sometimes it just sucks. I don’t get joy out of every workout. But cumulatively, it’s good for me physically, mentally, and emotionally. Sticking to a workout routine despite the fact that sometimes I don’t like it has its own benefits—improving my discipline, managing expectations, practicing perseverance—that spill out into the rest of life. Pushing my body has made my mind tougher, too.
Don’t wait for permission. Here’s a phrase I never thought I’d type: I’m running a 10K next weekend. I’ve never been the athletic type. I always felt out of place at gyms: I had the wrong clothes, I didn’t know what I was doing, everyone could see I was an imposter. I’d tried various classes and routines, and nothing stuck for more than a couple of months. But a few years ago, I just put on some shoes and…went for a run. I liked it, so I did it again. And now I’ve become a person who wants to go to the gym when I’m stressed out. My amazement—and amusement—at this development hasn’t waned, and neither has the import of the biggest lesson I’ve learned in becoming a runner: Nobody will think you don’t belong. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable at first. New identities take a little while to get comfy, like a new pair of jeans. Just show up, and get moving.
Oh, and, if you live in a cold place: Put your exercise clothes on the radiator. Pulling on toasty workout clothes is a sweet reward for marching forth into a cold morning to go to the gym.