Exercise and Depression: How to Set Doable Goals


You’ve probably heard about the many studies dealing with exercise and depression.  Experts say it probably helps by increasing blood flow to the brain as well as triggering the release of feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin.  It may also help by providing a distraction from your troubles, boosting your confidence and helping you become less isolated.  In fact, according to some studies, exercise can often work as well as a prescription antidepressant in relieving depression.

So, if it’s so effective, why aren’t more people just hopping on a treadmill and walking away their blues?  The reason lies in the fact that depression generally makes you feel extremely tired and unmotivated – just the opposite of the qualities that you need to get started with an exercise program.

Exercise and Depression:  Tips for Success

The key to benefiting from exercise is to find a way to get started in the first place.  The following tips will help you break through those feelings of fatigue and I-don’t-want-to until you do start to feel better.

Know that even a little exercise can help.  

According to WebMD, 20 to 30 minutes three times a week is a good starting point for those seeking a better mood.  As you get stronger, you can build up to more days a week for longer amounts of time.

Set realistic goals. 

Let’s face it, unless you were previously in really great shape, you’re probably not going to immediately jump into running a marathon, especially if you are already bogged down with depression.  Your goals need to be realistic and start from where you are now in your fitness and abilities.

Start small.  

At first you are not going to feel up to doing much.  Start small and build from there.  Anything you do, even a walk around your neighborhood, is more than you were doing before when you were sitting on the couch.

Do something you enjoy.  

Even under the best of circumstances, exercise will feel like a chore and you won’t continue with it if you aren’t enjoying it.  Choose an activity that you’ve enjoyed in the past or always thought you’d like to give a try.

Use motivating apps.

If you have a smart phone, there are tons of apps that you can use to track your progress, such as Runkeeper, or apps like Sweatcoin that provide you with monetary compensation for your efforts.  Seeing solid proof that you are making progress towards a goal – whether that’s a fitness goal or a goal to earn a prize – can be a great motivator to keep going.

Use apps that make exercise a game.

Pokemon Go, The Walking Dead and Zombies Run! are all fun apps that integrate exercise as a part of achieving your goals within the game.

Use apps that keep you entertained.

Listening to podcasts and audiobooks are some of the entertaining ways you can pass the time while you give your body a workout.

Play upbeat music.

Music can have a powerful effect on how you feel.  Make sure you select something upbeat as the soundtrack for your workout.

Workout at home if you are worried about feeling judged. 

Often when we are feeling depressed, we tend to fall into a spiral of judging ourselves harshly and feeling less than worthy.  It’s only natural during these times to compare ourselves to others and worry that we don’t measure up.  If that’s a problem for you, plan a way to exercise at home rather than seeking out a gym or other public place.  The important thing is that you do exercise, not where you do it.

Get a workout buddy.  

Many people find it helps them to keep on track with exercise if they have a partner to exercise with.  Having a workout buddy also is a great way to break out of your isolation and have someone to talk with about your troubles.

Integrate small bites of activity into your normal day.  

If spending a lot of time at once exercising seems daunting, break your activity up into smaller bites spread throughout your day.

Be aware that exercise doesn’t have to be a structured program.  

Anything that gets you moving can help, whether that be vacuuming the floor, playing with your kids or taking a brisk walk.

Sign up for classes.  

If you are the sort of person who is motivated by formal exercise, however, signing up for a class is a great way to keep yourself on track and ensure that you do follow through with your plans.

Get out in nature.  

Studies show that getting your exercise out in nature can have a better effect than exercising indoors.   Being out in nature reduces your stress, which in turn can help you feel less depressed.  It also increases your exposure to the sun, which can enhance your skin’s production of vitamin D.  Low levels of vitamin D are associated with a greater risk for depression.

Most importantly, be forgiving of yourself.  

What you’re setting out to do is not easy.  You’ll have days when you just can’t bring yourself to get out of bed.  You’ll have days when you’ve been doing great and then suddenly you get thrown for a loop and want to quit.  When this happens, be kind and nurturing to yourself and know that you are doing the best you can.  Depression is real and it’s okay if you sometimes stumble and fall.

Nancy Schimelpfening, MS

Nancy Schimelpfening is the founder of Depression Sanctuary. Unless otherwise stated, all of the content on Depression Sanctuary is written by and maintained by Nancy. Nancy has a master’s degree in community health education from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. She was the About.com (now Verywell.com) expert on depression from 1998-2016. She has also written for other online publications, including Healthline, Health Digest, and MindBodyGreen.