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Six surprising tips of exercising and the impact it has on your mood

With the wind chill dropping and the days shortening, many Americans already face the “winter blues" but working out could combat them.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — To put it lightly, 2020 has been a rough year. After being faced with months of navigating the uncertainty of our world’s health, the layered tolls of COVID-19 (e.g., physical, financial, social), and the tension of sociopolitical unrest, many Americans are understandably feeling weary. Research tracking the effects of the pandemic indicate that over half of Americans report that it has had a negative impact on their mental health, and rates of reported anxiety and depression symptoms have increased three-fold since pre-COVID. And to make matters worse, we have rounded the corner into a notoriously tough season on mood as we anxiously ride out the next few months of vaccine distribution while socially-distanced and indoors. With the wind chill dropping and the days shortening, many Americans already face the “winter blues” in ordinary times, without the added stress of a global pandemic to top it off. All of this makes one thing clear- it is a critical time for us to take care of our mental health.

If just reading this makes you want to retreat to the comfort of your couch with the company of a glass of wine or candy bar- you are not alone! It’s a natural human response to seek out these sources of comfort when feeling down, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the temporary distraction and high of these coping strategies quickly fizzles and can ultimately lead to feeling more sluggish, defeated, and depressed. The good news is that there are a variety of things that we can do in our day-to-day life at home to turn this cycle around and have a positive impact on our mood, including eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, and staying socially connected in the ways that we can. But perhaps one of the most powerful tools we have to boost mood and protect ourselves against depression is physical activity and exercise. In fact, exercise has been found to be as effective at reducing depression symptoms as taking a daily antidepressant medication (and it is much cheaper too!). If the thought of exercise evokes images of failed New Year’s resolutions and feelings of dread, the following are a few ideas to help ease into a sustainable active life and hopefully emerge from this season physically and mentally stronger than before. 

  1. Focus on why exercise is important to you. Most of us know, and have been told all too many times, the reasons why we “should” exercise. While “shoulding” yourself into activity may work for a short period of time, these external reasons for exercising (e.g., a doctor telling us we need to, wanting to achieve society’s body ideal) usually lead to approaching the activity from a place of shame or dread which makes it harder to stick to. At the end of the day, we’re driven by our own desires, emotions, and values, and harnessing these is a much more effective way to make activity meaningful and sustained.  So instead focus on the ways that exercise could enhance the things that are important to you! Perhaps exercise allows you to have more energy to play with your kids, boosts your mood to have more patience with your significant other, or gives you more mental clarity to crush it at work. Mindset is a powerful tool- rather than “shoulding” your way with shame, maybe try focusing on the reasons why you want to get moving instead. 
  2. Focus on the process, not just the outcome, and set reasonable goals. How often have your motivation and goal for working out been wanting to lose a certain amount of weight (e.g., “I just want to lose 20 pounds”)? If this sounds familiar, think about what happened when you reached this goal (e.g., feeling less motivated to continue working out) or when it felt like the scale wasn’t budging quickly enough (e.g., feeling frustrated or defeated). Losing weight in a healthy and sustainable way takes time and our weight can be impacted by a variety of factors outside of our control, such as hormones and water retention. To combat this frustration, it can be helpful to focus on and set goals based upon actions that are controllable, such as how often or how long you want to be active. Research has found that when individuals are asked to set a process goal, such as aiming to work out three times per week for 15 minutes, they are more likely to adhere to an exercise program than if they set only outcome goals. When forming these goals, make sure that they feel realistic and achievable- you wouldn’t expect to conquer Mount Everest if you just started hiking!
  3. Be flexible and avoid an “all or nothing” approach to exercise. It’s the start of the New Year, you’ve got your fancy new exercise gear on, and you’re on a mission. You think “I’ve got to work out for an hour every day,” and for two weeks you are reinvigorated as you push through the grueling workouts religiously. But then…life inevitably hits. An unexpected flat tire occurs, an extra work assignment comes up, or perhaps the baby kept you up at night and you just can’t muster up the time or the energy for that hour-long workout. Feelings of failure creep in, and it feels as if there’s no point of trying since there is no way you can possibly get in a “good” workout. You commit to starting again on Monday, next month, or maybe even next year. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, we are often trained to view exercise and activity from an “all or nothing lens,” believing or telling ourselves that only certain standards of exercise count. While this can help to motivate behavior for a short period of time, it usually leads to feelings of frustration and new habits dying hard when life gets in the way. In order to change this tendency, it’s important to recognize that something is always better than nothing, and that there are positive effects to even getting in a small amount of movement. In fact, research suggests that we can experience an experience a burst in mood within a few minutes of exercising, and just 15 minutes three times per week may help to improve depression symptoms. If you can’t get in your expected work out today, be kind to yourself, and give yourself permission to find alternative ways to get in a smaller amount of activity or perhaps find time another day. We are all human after all.
  4. Find activities or exercise that you enjoy- or find a way to make exercise more enjoyable! When you think about “exercise,” what do you imagine and how do you feel when you think about it? If you find yourself envisioning spending hours sweating away on the treadmill and this brings up feelings of dread, perhaps it is time to re-imagine what exercise can be. We are much more likely to stick to things that are enjoyable and rewarding, and exercise can take so many forms. Perhaps rather than time on the treadmill, you would rather dance in the kitchen with your kids? If you can’t think of a naturally fun option, try brainstorming ways to make the time spent exercising more enjoyable. For example, it may be helpful to watch your favorite TV show or listen to a podcast while walking, so at least the time spent is doing something else you enjoy.
  5. Try making exercise social. As human beings, we are wired for social connection and this can be a powerful motivator in many aspects of our daily life. Research finds that when we expect activity or exercise to be social, it is more motivating to engage in it and therefore we are more likely to stick to it. While “COVID” and “social” are not a natural pairing, it might be time to get creative about ways that you can still safely connect with others through exercise. Perhaps it’s time to check into a virtual fitness class, or informally do Zoom workouts with family and friends. Even online support and accountability groups can be a fun way to check-in with others and get new ideas when your routine feels stale.
  6. Take a realistic look at why exercise has been difficult in the past and create a plan for setting yourself up for success. When you last planned to engage in activity, what barriers came up that made it difficult to stick with your plan? For many, perceived lack of time, feelings of exhaustion, or not feeling confident about what to do have derailed even the sincerest ambitions to be active. If so, try to problem-solve ways to work around these barriers, such as enlisting support, using new time management strategies, finding a workout app to demonstrate different exercises, or breaking activity into shorter bursts throughout the day.

Hopefully these tips will help make exercise a more enjoyable and sustainable part of your life. While exercise is a positive strategy to help boost mood, it may not always be enough. If you are struggling with depression, feelings of hopelessness, thoughts about suicide, or other concerning changes in mood, it is important to consult a professional about additional treatment options and support. 


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