5 Hacks to Sticking to Exercise Through Depression


You’re a BodyHack fitness junkie. Face it. It’s why you’re here.

But some days (more often than not), you just don’t want to do it. You’re tired. You’re grumpy. And the last thing you want to do is use up more energy.

That’s depression.

Days the color of midnight haunt us all from time to time. And while there’s a difference between blue days and being clinically depressed, the symptoms are almost identical. Studies show that 17% of the American population will suffer depressive bouts at one time or another.

And while I’m not a psychologist, I do recognize that fitness is not an end-all be-all solution to every depression or anxiety mental health issue. But there are proven facts that exercise can help ease those symptoms as effectively as meds.

In trials held by Dr. Lynette Craft, Ph.D., 70% of patients put on exercise as treatment for their mental health found a significant reduction in their symptoms. 60% of those patients who went into remission had the same results as those put on meds 16 weeks later. In other words, meds work, but so does exercise.


Depression is a complex disease, but what it boils down to is an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Fitness helps bring back that balance. It releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel good (neurotransmitters and, like serotonin, and endorphins), it reduces immune system chemicals that make depression worse, and it calms us by increasing our body temperature.

To ease the pains of the downs of daily life, you have to maintain that brain balance. It’s not a one time fix. It takes dedication. It takes drive. (Which is something you may feel like you don’t have if you’re depressed.)

But the good news is it doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds.

The last thing you want to do is get up and move when you’re mentally exhausted. Finding the will to do it even when you don’t want to, takes the strength of the World’s Strongest Man, Nick Best.

But if you can do these five things, you’ll barely have to move one ounce of your mental muscle to stick to your workout routine so you can start feeling better.

1. Set a schedule


Putting your day on autopilot helps you get things done without thinking. After all, thinking about things is what leads us to procrastination. Establishing a daily routine that involves fitness will make it second nature and, therefore, something that your mind and body expect to do.

2. Don’t Think About it


Thinking about a task that we really aren’t in the mood for makes it all the more difficult to follow through. Don’t think about what you are going to do. Don’t think about how difficult you think it’s going to be. DO think about spending a few minutes to make yourself feel a little better. And DO think about how fast the time will go.

3. Lose yourself


Get lost in your exercise. Feel your body moving through the motions and listen to its feedback. Think only about what you are doing right now and how it feels. Leave EVERYTHING else outside of the gym (or home gym) door.

4. Turn on the tunes


The pace of the music you listen to affects your mood and your movement. Research shows that when the brain processes musical pulses, the motor areas in the brain are recruited as well; indicating a connection between music and movement. Find an upbeat rhythm and listen to it before and during your workout.

5. Focus on the after-effects

smile endorphins exercise

As humans, we are driven to do what makes us feel good. Focus on the feelings coursing through you after an intense workout and make that the focal point of your day.

Whether you like aerobic or non-aerobic exercises, the good news is they both work  equally well to help reduce and ease your mental health symptoms after a few weeks of working out. Be consistent and you’ll peak atop your own mountain of emotions.

If you suffer from depression, what are your tips to getting in your fitness when you don’t feel like it?

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  • Nita

    I needed to read this so much. 
    Recent events in my life have left me with depression. I need to get out of this rut and start getting healthy again.

    • http://www.taniadakka.com Tania Dakka

      It’s not an easy feat, but if we can literally take our minds out of the equation, it really does help us to get started. I wish you all the best, Nita. And thanks for taking the time to comment!

    • http://www.facebook.com/jonspooner Jonathan Spooner

      Speaking from experience – get running! This definitely has helped me through some pretty dark times. And while the immed. results def give you a happier outlook – over the longer term (like a week or so) you will notice the effects are much longer lasting and your mood will not be so much of a concern.

      Also another tip – DONT crucify yourself if you slip up and miss a morning run. Just get back up the next day and do it then.

      good luck Nita

      • http://seanmccolgan.com/ Sean

        Great advice Jonathan. 

      • Guest

        That’s great for you, truly — but not everyone is in shape to run. My knees are in bad enough shape already, thanks…

  • Blake

    That’s not depression, that’s a bad day. I think you should also mention that exercise can only replace medication in mild depression. Anything more serious is going to need special treatment.

  • Kimberly

    Research shows that most cases of clinical depression can be treated equally well by medication or psychotherapy (in particular cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal), but therapy has better long-term consequences (medications typically work for as long as you use them, therapy can help after it stops).  (Here’s one study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15816788). Others suggest that a combination has the best effects–medication works quicker, therapy longer.

    I don’t want to start a debate, but there are people for whom medication doesn’t work (for medical or personal reasons), and the current rhetoric tends to be that if it’s “real” depression, then it requires medication.  That’s not true.  Changing your behaviors and thoughts can also rewire your brain.

    The great thing about this article is that it hits the kind of habit-building and thought-changing practices that can help someone who is depressed.  It won’t replace therapy or medication for more serious cases, but it can help people who are on the slide.

    • http://www.getstrong.tv/ Spencer Morris

      Certainly. And let’s not underestimate the task of rewiring a brain. Possible: yes.
      Tough: yes.
      Near impossible when someone is depressed: likely.

      I think it would be interesting to take a group of clinically depressed people from Westernized countries and send them to live in a poor village in a developing country. I’m not saying people that are depressed are just ungrateful, but I wonder if a depressed person would force themselves to change in order to survive in the new, harsh environment, or if they would just sort of let themselves fade away. 

      I also wonder what the rate of depression is in poor countries versus rich countries. That is, if the ease of which we live, and the disconnect between us as a society (people can live in basements and never have face-to-face contact) has an effect on depression. I’m reminded of those clips you always see of poor children playing soccer and laughing and running around with huge smiles. I also recall hearing (I think from Seth Roberts) that there are very low depression rates in Amish societies.

  • BV

    Those of us who are also not psychiatrists KNOW that depression is NOT = chemical imbalance! Severe/Clinical depression means there is a chemical imbalance. Regular, or otherwise periodical depression (even for a few months) does not mean that people have an imbalance in their brain. PLEASE be careful, as young people may read this and then freak out thinking there’s something incurable or very wrong with them.

    Otherwise, this article makes good points. Exercise, regularly, really helps.

    • http://www.getstrong.tv/ Spencer Morris

      At the same time, “chemical imbalance” is a spectrum, not an on/off switch. Probably most of us have chemical imbalances, just not to the extent that we become clinically depressed. 

  • GS

    Why do people keep saying they feel good after exercise?  That it invigorates them?  It just makes me feel completely drained and wrecked and exhausted and worse for some reason.  I have always been this way.

    Even after giving it a very good try (9 months straight of going to the gym 2-3 mornings per week before work, doing light-moderate exercise), the days that I would go I would be completely useless for the rest of the day, so drained and exhausted that I was barely able to function. This is on top of a healthy diet and the assistance of a trainer. What’s with THAT?

    • http://www.getstrong.tv/ Spencer Morris

      Many possible factors:
      - could have been sedentary for most of life
      - could have hormonal issues (I did – low testosterone)
      - could have been diabetes or other undiagnosed medical condition
      - could have been eating a low carb diet and not adjusted to it
      - could have negative expectations or attitude
      - could have chemical imbalances in brain
      - could be over-stressed at work
      - could be making big dietary mistakes through unsound advice
      - could be on a caloric deficit
      - could not be sleeping enough per night to aid recovery
      - could be doing too much cardio
      - could not be resting enough between sets of weight

      that’s all I can think of now. many others though. :)

    • http://www.getstrong.tv/ Spencer Morris

      oh, and for what it’s worth, I workout, I kill myself, lift as heavy as I can. I DON’T feel good after exercise. I generally feel like puking, collapsing, and dying. But I feel PROUD that I got through the workout and gave it everything. It’s the same when I do a long run. I feel like absolute shit after, but mentally I am happy, confident, and proud that I didn’t quit and was able to push myself through all the moments when part of me said, “oh, just walk for a couple minutes”

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