How to use exercise to improve your mental health

Around this time last year, I was officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Truth is, I’ve been struggling on and off with this for most of my life. It just took me until last year to finally properly admit that to myself, and others, and ask for the help I needed.

This last year has been a bit of a rollercoaster. I’ve been trying to figure out what I want my life to look like, now that I have left behind the career I spent almost all of the last decade working towards. On top of that, I’ve been trying to get well. 

Slowly, I’ve realised that feeling healthy to me is less about ‘fixing’ myself and more about a lifelong practice of self-compassion and mindfulness to help me change the way I feel about, and react to, all the shitty stuff that sometimes happens to us. You know, life. After a brief stint on medication and then a longer period in therapy I’m in a much better place than I was last year. 

Working out when you’re depressed

But one thing I’ve really struggled with is how my mental health has impacted my fitness routine. I know from past experience that working out has a hugely positive effect on my mental state (I talked about this a bit in an earlier blog post too). 

And it’s not just me that has noticed this. Research has shown that exercise can be as effective as medication in treating mild to moderate depression (see also here, here and here). As well as relieving depression in the first place, exercise can also prevent you from relapsing.

So I was fully aware that exercise would be a helpful addition to my treatment. But despite (and perhaps because of) this, I’ve really struggled to consistently incorporate exercise into my life over the past year. And at times the way I was approaching fitness was making me worse, not better. 

You see, sometimes I find it too easy to turn fitness into another thing to beat myself up about. Another area in which I am failing.

I wanted to go straight back to my old training routine; spending 5+ days a week in the gym, getting up at 5 am every morning to train hard. And when I couldn’t sustain that, it just became another thing to feel crap about. My all or nothing mentality kicked in again and that old familiar voice in my head told me that if I couldn’t train like I used to, then there was no point in training at all. 

The frustration I felt with myself because I was not exercising made me feel even lower. Which, in turn, made it even harder to motivate myself to get to the gym. The whole thing was a vicious cycle of shame, frustration, and self-flagellation. 

 

How you think about fitness matters 

It seems to me that it’s precisely the times when exercise could help me the most that I often have the least motivation to actually do any. And I’m betting I’m not alone there. 

Look. We need to stop being so hard on ourselves. 

I don’t think it helps matters that in today’s society exercise and fitness is so bound up with weight. I could write a whole post on depression and weight issues (and you know what, I probably will) but it seems to me that we still think of weight loss as the primary purpose of exercise. 

When we look at exercise through this prism, fitness becomes something we need to do to be enough. Slim enough. Attractive enough. Good enough. 

Slowly, I’ve reframed the way I think about exercise and it has made it about 1000 times easier to start working out again. Because this time I’m coming from a place of self-compassion and not self-criticism. To me, working out is now a way to look after myself, to show myself that I care about my own wellbeing. It’s akin to having a nice long bubble bath or taking some time out to read a book, just for fun.

This shift in thinking has been the single biggest factor in helping me build up a fitness routine in a way that feels compassionate and helpful and doesn’t lead to me sobbing on the bedroom floor in frustration because I haven’t managed to work out at all that week. 

When you view exercise as an act of self-care it becomes an important way to show kindness to yourself and not just another way to punish yourself. I’ve also noticed that when I take the time to exercise I am more likely to make time for other acts of self-care too. When I’m exercising, I begin eating better, I practice mindfulness. It’s like making the decision to exercise sends my subconscious the message that I matter. That taking care of myself matters. 

I wanted to write this post to say if you’re struggling to stay active while also trying to look after your mental health, you’re not alone. Yes, fitness can help you feel better. But only if you approach it in the right way.

How to use exercise to improve your mental health, even when you don’t feel like working out

  • Start small. Even a 10 minute walk can help. Don’t set yourself impossible targets. Start where you are and do what you can with what you have. 
  • Find something you enjoy. Don’t force yourself to go running if you hate it with every fiber of your being. This is meant to be self-care, remember? Any movement counts. It doesn’t need to be ‘exercise’ in a strict, prescriptive sense. A walk outside can be just as beneficial as a hard weights session in the gym. 
  • Don’t beat yourself up for not working out. Do only what makes you feel better. If your fitness routine is adding more stress or making you feel worse, change it.  
  • Make exercise a social activity. Not only does this help with motivation, but it will also make working out more enjoyable. And as an extra bonus spending time with other people is good for your mental health too. At times I found it pretty much impossible to motivate myself to go to the gym to train alone, yet when I booked into a Crossfit class I would go. In part because it was a booked appointment at a fixed time, but also because Crossfit means working out in a group and is therefore a much more social activity than just hitting the gym alone. 
  • Make a commitment to yourself. Your wellbeing is important. If exercise makes you feel better, treat it as a priority.

It’s hard, even now, to admit that I have struggled with depression. Somehow it still feels like a personal failing, which was only compounded by failing at my fitness goals too. But if sharing this helps even one person be a bit kinder to themselves and use exercise in a compassionate way, for the benefit of their mental health, then I reckon it was worth it. 

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How to use Exercise to Improve your Mental Health - One Complete Life. A guide to exercising when you are suffering from depression and/or anxiety.

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  • Exercise is soooooooooo key to mental health. I know first hand that having a good and steady exercise regimen makes all the difference in my stability and recovery (I’m diagnosed with bipolar disorder, CPTSD, and severe and often crippling anxiety). Great post! Super informative and we’ll written.

    • Thanks Jaz, I totally agree. It’s the motivation to start that’s hard. I find it really helps if I tell myself I just have to do the first set, or the first couple of minutes of a run, then if I still don’t feel like exercising I can stop. This makes getting started so much easier and usually once I’m started I want to carry on 🙂