Exercising can be hard—but good for mental health! 9 easy tips

A version of this article was originally posted in the IDONTMIND Journal.

We know that exercise is good for your mental health. It helps you relieve stress, regulate your nervous system, and get those feel-good chemicals pumping. What isn’t always as clear is how you’re supposed to manage an exercise routine when your mental health condition makes it hard.

Physical activity isn’t the easiest when mental illness impacts your motivation, energy, and mood. But sometimes it’s at those low moments when you could benefit the most from some movement.

It’s not impossible. You’re totally capable of setting and achieving your exercise goals — you may just need a few adjustments and a little encouragement. Here’s a comprehensive guide on what to do before, during, and after exercise to make it more manageable.

Before exercise

Be kind to yourself

Exercise shouldn’t be something you dread or feel guilty about. Instead, think of it as an act of self-care. Focus less on what you can’t do, and emphasize what you can do and the benefits of it. Even if it feels forced at first, positive self-talk will reinforce healthy thoughts, feelings, and actions. Get in the right mindset with some affirmations:

  • “I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to show up. Whatever I achieve today is enough.”
  • “My body is capable of so much. Every day, I get stronger.”
  • “I respect my body and my mind, and I show up for them by exercising.”
  • “I deserve to feel healthy and strong. My body deserves to be taken care of.”
  • “My body needs both movement and rest. I’m proud of myself for giving it what it needs right now.”
  • “When I exercise, I feel good. I will have a fulfilling workout today.”

Know your limits

Ignore any fitness advice that glorifies the “no pain, no gain” mentality. Exercise doesn’t have to hurt, and while it’s good to push yourself sometimes, there’s also no shame in knowing your limits. Working out for 15 minutes is better than not doing it at all, and low-impact exercises can still make you break a sweat — no running or jumping needed. Plan your workouts according to what feels good for you, not what you think “counts” as exercise.

Remove the barriers

Sometimes it’s not the exercise itself that’s hard — it’s all the steps that come before it. Think about the things that usually hold you back, and try to find a way to make it easier on yourself. And remember, the best solution is the one that works for you, even if it might seem unconventional. For example:

  • If you have a hard time getting out of bed: Take advantage of the moments that force you to get up. You’ll have to use the bathroom or get food at some point in the day, so keep your workout gear in the bathroom or kitchen. Or just pop a few squats right there in front of the sink, or pace around the dining table a couple times after a meal.
  • If you get anxious exercising in public: Stay at home! There are plenty of YouTube workouts and online classes out there. And if you don’t want attention from other people in your household either, try a quiet workout for small spaces like your bedroom.
  • If you struggle to put on exercise clothes: Instead of changing right before your workout, put them on when you get dressed in the morning and wear them all day. Or ditch the workout clothes altogether! As long as you’re not doing anything super intense, it’s totally fine to do your exercises in pajamas.

During exercise

Take baby steps

Start small with your exercise routine, and then increase the length or intensity at your own pace — walk for 15 minutes today, then try 30 minutes next week, and then add 3 minutes of jogging the next. It’s also okay if your progress isn’t linear and fluctuates based on your motivation or energy.

If you’re having an especially tough day, break it down even smaller. Tell yourself that you’ll just lace up your shoes and see how you feel. Then challenge yourself to stay on the treadmill for one minute. If you get that far, make it five more minutes.

Make it social

Exercise can be more fun with company and encouragement from other people. You can schedule a casual bike ride with friends, sign up for a yoga class at a studio, or register for an event like Run IDONTMIND. Even if you don’t actually want to exercise in the same space, you can still make it social. Commit to a fitness challenge with a couple friends, make a group chat, and send each other updates on your progress. If you can’t get your IRL friends on board, join an online community.

Incorporate it into your day

So maybe you don’t quite have the time or energy for a formal exercise routine right now. Just try to find ways to add movement to your usual day. Do some lunges while you brush your teeth, stretch while you watch Netflix, and walk around the house while FaceTiming your friend. Think of it like microdosing your physical activity.

Gamify it

The best exercise is the kind that you enjoy. Bring some more fun to your workout with a game or app. Try a dancing game that gets you on your feet, or an app that gives you zombie survival missions for your run. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be having so much fun that you won’t even mind breaking a sweat. Here are some options to explore:

After exercise

Reward yourself

Boost your motivation by planning something nice for yourself post-workout. You can look forward to grabbing a refreshing smoothie on your way home, or using a new body scrub in the shower to soothe your sore muscles. Instead of punishing yourself when you don’t exercise, give yourself some positive reinforcement when you do.

Track it

Log your exercise with a fitness tracker, your notes app, or a journal. When you track your exercise, it’s easier to measure your progress, celebrate your successes, and stay motivated. Don’t just write down what you did  —  jot down the way you feel after doing it. It’ll inspire you to follow through with your next workout to read about how good it makes you feel, in your own words.

When you’re exercising while managing your mental health condition, it’s important to give yourself some grace. Some days you’ll crush your workout, and some days you’ll just need to rest, and that’s okay. Be proud of yourself for trying to care for your body and mind.

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