The 'So You Feel Like Crap' Guide to Fitness

When you're mentally or emotionally spent, who feels like working out? It's all you can do to get through the day, let alone muster the energy to get up and exercise. That's what you tell yourself, anyway. But what if getting active turns out to be the thing that helps turn things around?

Some days you don't feel like you can't even think about working out. (Image: martin-dm/iStock/GettyImages)

Not to sound glib or cliche, but exercise really can work wonders on your mood in many cases. And we're not talking triathlons or any other type of rigorous activity necessarily. So when you feel like crap and can't muster up the energy to even think about exercise, here's what you can do.

Real Talk: Can Exercise Actually Improve Your Mood?

When people start exercising, "even if just a bit," a number of things can happen, says Lisa Uebelacker, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. For one thing, being active can boost your self-esteem, she says. It also helps people manage stress, lose weight, boost mental alertness and sleep better, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

When it comes to more serious mental health concerns, exercise can help with depression, bipolar disorder and problems that often accompany mood disorders, like pain, anxiety and sleep disturbance (insomnia and sleep deprivation), according to a December 2017 review published in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports.

And a November 2019 study from Depression and Anxiety found physical activity lowers the risk of depression even in those who're genetically predisposed to it or who've struggled with it in the past.

So how exactly does exercise affect mood? It's complicated. A number of factors are involved. Exercise has long been associated with the release of endorphins (the brain chemicals behind the euphoric feeling known as runner's high) and serotonin (aka the happy chemical), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

There's also evidence that a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may play a key role. BDNF helps brain cells grow and thrive and aids cell-to-cell communication in the brain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And Boston University researchers suspect it "may be a primary mechanism of the anti-depressive effects of exercise."

So How Much Exercise Do You Need?

The good news is that any amount of activity is better than none at all. A January 2018 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that at least one hour of physical activity a week, regardless of intensity, may help protect against future depression.

Separately, a January 2019 study in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that physical activity — at least 15 minutes a day of high-intensity exercise, like running, or an hour of lower-level exertion, like walking or doing housework — may protect against depression.

But How Do You Motivate Yourself to Get Moving?

Maybe exercise is on the back burner because you're struggling with a mood disorder, coping with a chronic medical condition or taking care of a loved one. And, well, you just feel lousy.

"The last thing you want to do when you're feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, for most people, is exercise," says Chris Gagliardi, an ACE-certified health coach and personal trainer in San Diego.

Beating yourself up won't help, but moving just a little bit more might be the medicine you need. Here are some pointers on how to get started:

Step 1: Be Real With Yourself

Let's say you're open to the idea of exercising. Maybe you've thought about doing something but haven't committed, and you're certainly not intending to lace up your sneakers today — or tomorrow, for that matter.

As a first step, Gagliardi asks people to think through why they want to exercise. How will it help you make your day-to-day life better? "Sometimes it helps to connect your long-term goals to your daily activities," says Uebelacker. For example, if your goal is to keep up with your grandkids, walking a few times a week can help you get in shape.

John Berardi, PhD, founder of Precision Nutrition recommends a "5 Whys" exercise. Take your initial answer to "Why do I want to exercise?" and break that down further. So if your first reason is to lose weight, ask why you want to lose weight. Keep going until you get to the reason that is going to truly motivate you.

Step 2: Aim for the Bare Minimum to Start

You've likely heard the recommendation that most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While that's a great goal to aim for over time, it's not very realistic if you're not exercising at all.

Begin by setting small, realistic goals, says Chad Rethorst, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center in Dallas. "It might be a 5- to 10-minute walk a couple times a week to start out with and just progressing from there," he says.

When you're first starting out, apply the "What You Can When You Can" philosophy from authors Carla Birnberg and Roni Noone. Like the name implies, do whatever you can — walk your dog, stretch, garden, ride your bike — when you can. You might be surprised how those first small steps snowball into a larger daily routine.

Step 3: Run an Experiment

If you're inactive, the thought of embarking on an exercise regimen can be daunting. Instead of focusing on the effort involved, take one tiny step toward your goal. "What would happen if you took that 15-minute walk?" Gagliardi asks clients.

He suggests setting it up as an experiment — even if it's a single session — to see if it works for you. Pay attention to how you feel during the exercise and afterward. It's often a tipping point for clients. When they feel the effects of exercise, "that's where the power is," he says.

Gagliardi recalls working with a woman in her mid-30s with a stressful desk job who was taking medication for depression. One day, still in her work clothes, she decided to go for a walk. That 20-minute experiment changed her demeanor. "It was like talking to a different person," he says. With that single win under her belt, she worked up to walking three times a week and reported feeling happier and healthier.

Step 4: Find What You Love

Let's be honest: You're not going to pound the pavement after work if you loathe running. Maybe swimming's your thing. Or line dancing. Or yoga. If you look fondly on your high school basketball days, heading to the court to shoot hoops may be just the thing to bring you back to your happy place.

Experts say whatever you do, find something you love. "If you enjoy it, you are more likely to keep at it," Uebelacker reasons.

Step 5: Celebrate Little Victories

When you're feeling meh but manage to meet friends for a pick-up soccer game, that's success! Little achievements can help you build self-efficacy — confidence in your own abilities to manage situations or tasks. And that will empower you to stick with it, Gagliardi says.

An April 2013 article in Frontiers in Psychiatry examining the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise highlights the power of self-efficacy. As people rack up workout successes and their fitness improves, they gain a sense of mastery. The authors cite other studies suggesting the best way to wield the power of self-efficacy is through activities that provide "an optimal level of challenge."

Gagliardi advises clients to focus on "process goals" (riding your bike around the block), not "product goals" (like dropping 20 pounds). "Just the fact that you did it, can we celebrate that?" he asks. Yes, yes we can!

Step 6: Leave Proof for Your Future Self

So how's it going? Tracking your mood and how it changes with exercise can be a powerful tool for holding yourself accountable, Gagliardi says. Try one of the various mood-rating scales to rate your degree of happiness or sadness throughout the day or come up with your own.

Let's say you're thinking about skipping your walk because you're too stressed out. Or since you've already missed a day of exercise, you wonder why you should even bother working out the rest of the week.

Claiming defeat before even you even try to work out or engaging all-or-nothing thinking is unproductive. Revisit your journal to challenge those irrational thoughts, Gagliardi says. "Look at how less stressed or less anxious you were feeling on the days you did exercise."

Step 7: Enlist an Exercise Partner

Why not rally family members, friends or neighbors around your fitness goals? "You will be more likely to follow through on exercise plans if you know someone else is waiting for you," Uebelacker says. Group exercise has other benefits, too. Some people may find they like socializing with others when they go to the gym and that making a date adds structure to their day, she says.

Or maybe you have another significant other to help you along your exercise journey — your pup. In a small study, published August 2017 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, dog owners described dog walking as relaxing, stress-relieving and fun. The fact that the owners themselves were getting some exercise was not the prime motivator for walking their dogs, but it was definitely a bonus!

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