The relationship between exercise and mental health goes both ways. A September 2018 study in The Lancet Psychiatry suggests exercise is linked to fewer depressive symptoms, and the American Psychological Association notes that exercise can have a long-term impact on improving mental health symptoms — regardless of if you have a diagnosed disorder or you're just struggling through a tough week.
But what about the connection in the other direction, looking at how difficulties with mental health affects your motivation to work out? That's not quite as rosy. Feeling stressed, anxious, indifferent or depressed has been shown to contribute to excessive sedentary time, according to a September 2018 study in Preventive Medicine Reports, which tends to make mental health situations worse
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We asked trainers and athletes what they do when they're having a tough mental health day, and they offered tips that might give you a much-needed nudge, too.
1. Reset First Thing in the Morning
When Jen Landesberg, RYT, coach and yoga instructor for the EvolveYou app, has a difficult stretch, she focuses on taking the first 10 minutes of the day as an opportunity to prep for the day — before getting out of bed.
"Those first waking moments shape your entire day," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Research tells us that whatever act gives us our first dopamine hit, we will continue to crave for the rest of the day. So, if the first thing we do is scroll through social media, we'll be drawn to doing that all day. If the first thing we do is connect, ground and slow down, that's what we'll do throughout the day."
This technique helps Landesberg have a more objective perspective on what's happening and lessens the amount of time she spends ruminating on negative thoughts. It also prompts her to think about what would truly help her mental health.
"Some days it feels right to release trapped energy through heavy exercise, but sometimes it feels better to take the day off and find kindness for myself," she says. "So, it really is about tuning into my body and asking what it needs on those days.
2. Stay Aware of the Effects of Training
Currently preparing to compete in her third Ironman event, trainer Jacque Crockford, CPT, noticed during the tapering period in her training that her mental state had become more agitated than usual, causing her motivation to dwindle. This wasn't the first time she experienced this effect, but because it had happened before, she was able to anticipate and prepare by including more recovery time in her program.
"Everyone should know that struggling with motivation is a normal part of training, especially if you're working on a new, particularly challenging goal," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.. "Have grace with yourself when those feelings arise, and know you're not alone."
Joining support groups online has been helpful, she adds, as well as sharing her feelings on Ironman groups on Facebook. But, she emphasizes, it's also important to recognize that if lack of motivation or depressive symptoms linger for longer than a couple weeks, it may be time to chat with a mental health care provider in case there's a different underlying issue to address beyond potentially overtraining.
3. Ask Yourself the Right Questions
As head trainer at Blink Fitness, Ellen Thompson, CPT, spends the majority of every day motivating clients and other trainers, but also struggles with social anxiety and imposter syndrome, which can bring mental health challenges.
"The first thing I do is acknowledge the resistance, and let myself sit with those feelings for about 15 minutes," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Then, I ask myself a series of questions that will get me moving in the right direction." Here's her list:
- What's the goal here, and why is it important to me?
- How much progress have I made with this goal?
- Where is this resistance coming from?
- How can I acknowledge and accept this resistance?
- Can I recall a moment of feeling powerful and accomplished after working out?
- Am I ready to release this resistance so I can feel that powerful and accomplished feeling again?
This tactic takes practice, she says. It can feel silly and pointless at first, but Thompson suggests training yourself to dig deeper in this way regularly, because it provides an opportunity to take control back and realize your worth and power.
4. Take Off Your Fitness Tracker and Go Outside
When 26-time Ironman finisher and trainer Tom Holland, CSCS, is experiencing particularly strong negative feelings, he switches his training plan to a long LISS (low intensity, steady state) workout like an easy run or lengthy bike ride.
There are plenty of other LISS options, like kayaking for a few hours, doing a 90-minute yoga flow and even taking a meandering walk. The point, he says, is just to keep moving — and getting outside can be particularly helpful.
"I know from years of personal experience that exercise will be an enormous help in combatting my mental health challenges, often within the first few minutes," he says. "When the negative feelings begin, I do everything possible to break a sweat as soon as I can."
That also means letting go of all metrics, he adds. Trying to track his pace, heart rate, power output and other variables tend to add to already existing stress and anxiety. Instead, he takes off his watch, goes outside and enjoys the long workout instead.
5. Mix Up Your Wellbeing Strategies
Sometimes, what worked for you the last time — or last dozen times — for a mental health boost doesn't seem to be doing the trick anymore, which is why it's important to stack up numerous strategies, says Reda Elmardi, CSCS, strength and conditioning trainer and founder of The Gym Goat, an online wellness site.
He focuses not just on regular exercise for a mental lift, but also on talking through his feelings to friends and family members, meditating with a particular focus on deep breathing work, getting enough sleep to help his athletic recovery and mental wellbeing and writing in a journal often about what might be upsetting him.
"We've all been there, where you're feeling sad, angry or anxious, and it might be a bad mental health day or a diagnosed mental condition," he tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Either way, having a breadth of approaches can not only help you get past the bad days, but possibly even prevent them in the first place."
We recognize the many obstacles in finding proper mental health care. Both access and affordability are huge issues. Low-cost options like Open Path Collective and Inclusive Therapists are available.
- The Lancet Psychiatry: "Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study"
- American Psychological Association: "The exercise effect"
- Preventive Medicine Reports: "Changes in sedentary time are associated with changes in mental wellbeing over 1 year in young adults"