Start out slow. It may be the last thing you want to do when you're feeling down, but exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain and can help ease depression symptoms. You don’t have to do too much, maybe just go for a short walk. If you can push yourself to do it a few days in a row, you may not need as much of a push the following day.
Walk or Run
You don’t have to run a marathon or be a speed demon. You don’t even have to run. Start with walking, and you can decide if you want to go faster as you get stronger. It’s not just the exercise that helps -- the great outdoors can lift your mood, too.
The fixed and moving poses of this meditative form of exercise can make you stronger and more flexible. That can give you energy and a sense of well-being. The breath control involved in yoga also can calm your emotions. You can look for videos online, but a class gets you out into the world and around other people.
Touching soil may boost a key brain chemical called serotonin, and that can help lift depression. You'll also be active and outside. If you don’t have a patch of dirt of your own, call a local community garden to see if you could work a plot there.
It’s good exercise and a great opportunity to let out some emotion without talking about your feelings. You can just hit the ball against a wall, but if you want it to come back across a net, you’ll need someone on the other side. That's a chance to socialize. And if you commit to a time with someone else, you’re more likely to stick to it.
Exercise at Work
If you need a distraction to get your mind off negative thoughts, take a few minutes and step away from your desk. Find a quiet place and do some stretching, or go up and down a flight of stairs -- anything that gets you moving can boost your mood.
It’s a great, whole-body workout, and some people find the water helps calm them. It doesn’t have to take a huge chunk out of your day: Just 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 times a week may be all you need.
You can get good exercise on a stationary one, but hitting the bike path is a great way to take in the world around you. You don’t need anything fancy -- any two-wheeler will do. Ride it to the store, the coffee shop, or your friend’s house. Just make sure to get it checked by a mechanic first, and don’t forget to wear a helmet.
You use weights, machines, or your own body resistance (like with pushups) to build strength, muscle mass, and flexibility. A simple set of hand weights will work, or even just the floor. The workout isn’t the only thing that improves your mood -- a sense of accomplishment and better body image can help, too.
Walk Your Dog
Fido can help ease your stress, and he may be just the motivator you need. Grab a leash and maybe a Frisbee and get out there. The fresh air won’t hurt, either.
It’s a win-win-win: exercise, social engagement, and fun. All those can lift your spirits, and you can start at home. While nobody’s watching, turn on a favorite track and let your body move to it. Even short dance sessions can feel good. As you gain your footing and confidence, check for classes at local dance schools or look for a group that gets together to dance.
You may need to work up to it, but three 20-second sprints, with 2-minute breaks in between, may be as good for you as 50 minutes of moderate jogging. And they can be a quick way to release some pent-up emotion. Just make sure you warm up -- and ask your doctor if you don’t know if you’re healthy enough for that kind of high-intensity workout.
It’s a great workout: You jog, sprint, jump, and throw. You can do it indoors and out, winter and summer, and in a large group or with just one other person. You can even shoot hoops by yourself.
The focus needed for a long game can help distract you from negative thoughts, and being part of a team adds a feeling of connection. And when you’ve got a whole team that expects you to show up, you’re more likely to, right?
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist