Helpful tips for exercising when depressed

During my low periods exercising, particularly in winter is exceptionally hard. If you are like me, my ideal exercise routine involves exercising inside where no one sees or hear me.
Perhaps you are like me and you are experiencing back pain, or maybe another disability or added pressures of caring for another…lets be honest, exercising is hard.
Unfortunately, lack of exercise places people with mental illness at increased rates for cardiovascular disease, diabetes (Glowacki et al., 2017).

Barriers to exercise for people with mental illness:

Glowacki et al.’s (2017) scoping review has identified several barriers that deter people with mental illness from exercising. Some of these factors included:

  • Knowledge and skills: such as knowing how to exercise, in my case knowing how to exercise without causing further pain to my back, knowing how to access exercise equipment or parks.
  • Capabilities: low is confidence, self-belief. For example my poor self-esteem prevents me from exercising outdoors as I am concerned people are watching me and judging my body. I am also nervous to join a group and socialise.
  • The environmental context: Not knowing what to do if it rains, poor awareness of resources and facilities around me, lack of clothing that fits me and the cost of purchasing new runners.
  • Emotions: Fear of being unsafe, lack of motivation, lack of energy and body image concerns.

These barriers can be demotivating to hear. Therefore lets focus on the benefits of exercising for people with mental illness.

  • Improved sense of body image (feeling strong. feeling capable)
  • Pain Management: I use exercise to manage my back pain and headaches
  • Clarity in thinking: Exercise is a time I can switch off and be mindfully present of my body
  • Improved sleep
  • Physical benefits: strength, flexibility, fitness and endurance are just some.
  • It can be a sense of enjoyment as it breaks up your day between work, rest and play.

Due to these benefits and many more, when faced with challenges, I have tried various strategies. These are my most effective tips.

Exercising indoors

Laura’s exercise tips

  1. Have an exercise goal. You might want to use the National Guidelines (Australian) to help inform your goal.
  2. Try to think about a movement goal rather than an exercise goal or weight goal. I use a movement goal as I can become so fixated on my happiness being dependent on reaching a certain weight.
  3. Anything can be movement, vacuuming, changing the bed sheets, or standing while you work at a desk.
  4. Set rest days. Balance is so important. Listen to your body when it needs rest. This is dependent on your age, health status and needs.
  5. Start easy and work up in either how frequently you exercise, the intensity or duration. Use a diary to help with this. Always remember to balance activity with rest.
  6. Rest doesn’t have to be no movement. It could include a gentle walk, doing some stretches or doing some light gardening. Balance is the key.
  7. Identify your biggest barriers and implement your own strategies to help overcome these.

    Home Habits:
  8. Get dressed into your “active wear” for the day. Regardless if you plan to exercise or not. If I am already dressed in my gear, my chances of exercising increases substantially.
  9. Put music on before you have decided whether you want to exercise. Days when I feel depressed, I put happy loud music on. It gets me in the mood to move my booty.
  10. If you do not have access to a paid music subscription, tune into your favorite station or think about burrowing some CD’s from your local library. It’s Free!

    Work Habits:
  11. Stand to work. I just purchased a standing desk and chair for $150 (AU) from office works. Its helping build my standing tolerance.
  12. If you are stuck at a desk and don’t have access to a stand up desk think creatively. I worked at my kitchen bench for half the day when I needed to stand.
  13. Wear runners to work. When I do this I am more likely to walk around during lunch time and use my breaks to get fresh air.

  14. Find an exercise partner: I have a couple of walking partners
  15. Coffee with a walk instead of coffee and cakes. Instead of going out for lunch with friends. Get them to jump on board with your exercise routine and have a walk as a catch up. And then you can go grab lunch afterwards :p
  16. Playing with my dog, running and mucking around is an activity I greatly enjoy but rarely realise I am exercising whilst doing it.
  17. Check out your local council’s website or neighbourhood house/community groups. They often run exercise groups rather cheaply.

    Variety for Fun
  18. Explore different types of exercises. Try to identify what exercises/ sports that you like to engage in and suit your mind and body.
  19. If you have children or a partner that plays a sport. Go watch them but don’t sit down. When my husband plays cricket I use the opportunity to walk Lily around the oval or run drinks out to the guys.

  20. Have options. If its raining or too hot can you find a small space to exercise indoors?
  21. Wear multiple layers and as you get hot tie them around your waist
  22. Walk nearby to your car. If I am concerned it is going to rain. I park my car nearby a circuit track so that I can leave quickly
  23. Use Fisiocrem. Before I go for a walk in the cold. Fisocrem helps to give my back some warmth. The smell is also very relaxing. A cheaper option I have heard is Vicks Vapour Rub.

  24. Invest in some light weights, a yoga mat and theraband. These items are inexpensive. I purchased my new yoga mat for $8 from Big W and my complete set of hand held weights from Aldi.
  25. Leave your yoga mat in an easy to reach and visible place. This will serve as a reminder to do some stretches or mindfulness practice.
  26. Have a pair of indoor shoes. These shoes are only for exercising indoors. Too many times I have gone to put on my runners to exercise indoors to find them filthy and covered in mud
  27. If it is cold. Put the heater on right before you exercise for 10 minutes. Or do some light marching on the spot. It will get you warm enough to get undressed into your gear.
  28. Think about how much support you need to stay committed. In the past I have purchased work out DVD’s (approx $50) which gave me a boost in motivation. This could be the perfect start before over committing and spending money on an expensive gym membership
  29. Subscribe to Free You-tube workout play lists. My favourites are Efit30, the Body Project, Zumba and Popsugar fitness.

Reward your self for exercising. Do not make this a food reward. My rewards are often intrinsic such as saying well done to myself. Using a tick chart system, or perhaps purchasing a new exercise top which is a nice motivator to exercise even more.

My biggest advice is start slow and easy. If you are unsure about which activities are safe for you it is important to see your doctor and physiotherapist for advice. Again, do not make losing weight the soul purpose of why you exercise. This can be unhealthy and can encourage negative perceptions about how you look. Choose your goal to be meaningful to your needs.

Please note that no products recommended are sponsored . These are products I recommend from my personal use.

A little progress each day …


Glowacki, K., Duncan, M. J., Gainforth, H., & Faulkner, G. (2017). Barriers and facilitators to physical activity and exercise among adults with depression: A scoping review. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 13, 108-119. doi:10.1016/j.mhpa.2017.10.001

Until then… Have a day,   

Love Laura

Founder of OT for BPD

Published by OT Trauma Tools

Founder Mental health Advocate; Phd Candidate; Occupational Therapy Teacher and Researcher Australia “As an occupational therapist diagnosed with BPD I will use this page to share about the various interventions and strategies that are helpful to those with BPD. I will also share about the positive and sometimes challenging approaches that health professionals have used in my treatment in emergency, inpatient, outpatient and community settings. I hope that by sharing my lived experience I can help improve the experience of those struggling to understand Borderline Personality Disorders (BPD) and also support those living with BPD and other mental health challenges Most importantly we will share how occupation can powerfully help change lives!" Laura

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