How Does Exercise Help Me, and How Do I Get Started When I Don’t Have The Motivation?

By: Angela Couch, RN, MSN, PMHNP-BC,
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

The research is in, and it’s clear. Exercise can help with depression, anxiety and cognitive decline, not to mention the physical benefits which we are all probably familiar with already. Physical inactivity can also be a risk factor for depression and anxiety.

What are the ways exercise can benefit us?

  1. Increases our energy and motivation levels
  2. Releases “feel good” endorphins, and endogenous cannabinoids that enhance our sense of well-being
  3. Reduces the inflammatory activities of immune cells that can harm us
  4. Has positive impacts on brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which can increase the growth of new neurons (cells) in the brain
  5. Enhances the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep
  6. Improves self-esteem
  7. In the immediate time frame, exercise helps reduce feelings of anxiety, drops our blood pressure, enhances alertness, and can help break the cycle of negative thoughts
  8. With time, exercise reduces feelings of depression, increases motivation, and helps with executive functioning
  9. With time, it reduces the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults

But lifestyle changes are hard to begin with, right?  How do I do it when I’m feeling depressed or anxious, or otherwise unmotivated?

  1. Don’t wait to have the motivation. We can always find an excuse to do it another day, or wait for the “right” time when we feel “better”, and hours can become days, days can become weeks, you get the picture.  However, choosing to do it now is choosing to do something that might make us feel better. “I’ll go for a walk now to help me feel better” instead of “I’ll go for a walk when I feel better.” Motivation levels increase when we’re in a good routine of activity.
  2. Start small, and set reasonable goals. If the idea of “exercise” is too intimidating or unpleasant to consider, shoot for increasing physical activity to start.  Just getting off the couch and moving around is a great start.  Physical activity can include working in the yard or garden for a few minutes, doing some stretching, parking further away from the grocery or the office, vacuuming the house, or walking to the end of the street and back. Don’t think of exercise as another chore on the to-do list, but as a wellness activity and part of treatment.
  3. Make it easier. Set the time, date, and activity on the calendar.  Lay your clothing out the night before, or sleep in it when you’re shooting for activity first thing in the morning.  Set your sneakers by the door.  If you need help getting out of bed for a morning workout, set the alarm on the other side of the room so you cannot lay in bed and hit the snooze button.  If mornings aren’t your thing, choose the time of day when you feel the most energy, or tend to be in the brightest mood, for getting started.
  4. Use an app or a video if you’re not sure what to do, don’t want to pay for a gym membership, or don’t particularly want to be around people. You can get lots of ideas for things you can do at home, if the gym is not your thing, by looking on Pinterest, YouTube, or the internet.  There are often options for mild, short workouts for beginners available.  Make sure to start slow, don’t do anything that causes pain, make the duration short to start, and don’t expect to master the move right away. Consult with your primary care provider, especially if you have some physical limitations or challenges.
  5. Find activities you know you’ll enjoy, or try new things. We’re much more likely to follow through on activities we enjoy. If walking on a treadmill in the basement seems boring, go for a walk or bike ride outside, or hit the local mall and “window shop” while you walk. Take the dog to the local dog park with a tennis ball for play time.  Listen to fun music, or an interesting pod cast, to make the activity more enjoyable.
  6. Enlist help. Work with your therapist or provider to come up with a viable plan to get you moving.  Set up physical activities or exercise to do with a friend,  to make it more enjoyable and  increase the likelihood of follow through. Signing up for a fitness class, or for sessions with a personal trainer, may increase the likelihood of follow through because of sense of accountability.
  7. Be kind to yourself. Reward yourself sometimes for doing the hard thing. Track your victories, even ones you feel are small, and review them when you’re feeling low or discouraged.  Allow yourself to take a break when you need to.

Exercise and physical activity are two tools we can use to help improve our well-being, which can be cost-effective and don’t require a prescription.

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Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, et al. Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(9):CD004366. Published 2013 Sep 12. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6

Tan ZS, Spartano NL, Beiser AS, et al. Physical Activity, Brain Volume, and Dementia Risk: The Framingham Study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2017;72(6):789-795. doi:10.1093/gerona/glw130

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Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition | 2018 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services