If you suffer from depression, you know that there’s no easy fix. To get back to feeling like your old self, or at least some version of it, it usually takes a combination of medication, therapy, and healthy lifestyle habits, like exercising. Research shows that that physical activity delivers significant mood-boosting benefits by flooding your system with feel-good hormones. It also serves as a distraction, taking your mind off of the things that are worrying you. In some cases, it might even be as effective as taking antidepressants, say Harvard Health experts.
The only problem? On days when you can barely drag yourself out of bed, the idea of hitting the gym can feel downright impossible. But it’s worth pushing yourself anyway. We spoke with six women who suffer from depression—and who say they feel better when they stick to their workout schedule. Here’s how they make it happen, even on the days when everything feels tough.
“I think about what I used to enjoy, and set small goals.”
Morgan Sheets has suffered from long-term depression—but as a certified wellness coach, she knows how important exercise is for both her physical and mental wellbeing. One strategy that consistently works for her is thinking of an activity that she used to enjoy (even if it doesn't seem appealing at the moment) and deciding to do it for just a short period.
“Trying to make yourself get up, get dressed, and drive to the gym for an hour workout probably seems like too big of a mountain to climb,” Sheets says. So instead, she picks something that's both fun and active and plans to do it for just a little while—like bicycling around the block a few times or putting on a song and dancing to it all the way through. “As let yourself be fully present in the activity, you’ll start feeling better about doing it and maybe even have fun,” she says.
“I keep a calendar.”
“Depression can be debilitating,” acknowledges Tonisha Pinckney, a mental illness advocate diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. And yet, she maintains that staying active can deliver life-saving benefits. Keeping a calendar helps her stay accountable. “When there’s something to do, it’s hard to just lay in bed or sit on the couch. After all, it was booked in advance,” she says.
The other thing she marks on her calendar: dates that she knows will trigger her depression (like the anniversary of a loved one’s death). “On those dates, I make sure something fun or engaging is scheduled that will help me get through the days without crashing,” she says. Try signing up for a new workout class, or make plans to take a hike with a friend. These types of activities will keep your mind occupied and flood your body with feel-good hormones.
“I use the 5-second rule.”
In addition to taking medication, Alison Marsh walks or runs outside to manage her depression. Sometimes her mind will start coming up with reasons for why she should skip her daily workout. When that happens, “I count backward from 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—and just do it. I throw on my shoes and just walk, or run if I’m feeling compelled,” says the prenatal Pilates instructor and mom of five. Another tactic that makes a difference: focusing on her family and her clients. “To stay motivated during bouts of depression, I remember my kids and husband, and my God-given assignment of helping other women,” she says.
“I enlist a friend.”
Angela Wilson Gyetvan began struggling with depression after completing treatment for breast cancer several years ago. (Thankfully, she’s cancer-free today.) Tennis is her favorite way to exercise, and she aims to play three or four times a week. But getting herself on the court can sometimes be challenging, so she tries to play a lot of doubles. “That way there are three other people who are depending on me to show up,” says Gyetvan, who owns a digital consulting firm. Another benefit? Playing with a group provides her with plenty of social interaction—another tool that she sees as essential to battling her depression.
“I tie it to something fun.”
Plenty of health professionals have told JF Garrard that regular exercise will help her severe depression. But she still struggles to do it. So she links physical activity with something she likes, like watching Netflix. “I use home exercise DVDs. I’ll set up two screens, and put the exercise DVD on mute and watch Netflix with sound,” says Garrard, president of the indie book publisher Dark Helix Press. “Watching a show distracts me and keeps me going. Otherwise, I will not finish the exercise on my own.”
“I go easy on myself.”
“I tend to throw my whole self into a workout,” says public relations executive Alexa Nikiforou. “It gets me to focus on being in the moment rather than focusing on my own thoughts.” She likes to switch up her workouts regularly—doing everything from barre and cycling to the elliptical. Yoga, however, is her constant since she finds it especially soothing.
Pushing herself to be active isn’t always easy though. “With depression, you lose your will to do anything. It’s like nothing matters anymore,” she says. But surprisingly, Nikiforou finds that the best motivator is being gentle with herself and celebrating what she can do. “It’s important to remember to be proud of getting out of bed, and through the struggle, you are making a conscious effort to work that much harder to feel better, do better, be better,” she says.
This article originally appeared on Prevention