By Beth McColl
I like exercise. I’m no athlete, but I can get in a good workout when I feel like it. I walk or jog the 15 minutes to the gym, do 10 minutes on each machine, and then lift a few (very small) weights. If anything starts to hurt, I slow down. If I feel like stopping, I stop.
Sometimes I feel a sense of ease after the workout—a little swell of euphoric energy that carries me into the rest of the day. Other times? I don’t feel anything. I’m not happier. I’m not in a better headspace. I’m just sweaty.
Believe me, I’ve heard it plenty of times: Running around and getting your heart rate up causes a release of endorphins, which are those cool little feel-good chemicals in the brain. So it would make sense that someone like me—who deals with bouts of depression and anxiety—should just get on with it and exercise because it’s in my best interest, right?
I hate to break it to you, but exercising with a mental illness is more complicated than that. It’s also kind of a dick move to suggest physical activity to anyone and everyone with anxiety or depression as if it’s some panacea.
Even on the days when I feel mentally well enough to exercise, there’s no guarantee that working out is going to boost my mood. Of course, there is research that shows a correlation between exercising and reduced depressive symptoms for some people with depression—but that doesn’t mean it’s a clinically proven cure. Aside from that, being told that it will make me happier by people who don’t understand the constraints of a mental health issue is as ill-informed as it is annoying.
I go through days when working out simply isn’t in reach. I’m too fatigued and feeling too hopeless to do so much as open a curtain. Feelings of lethargy are common in people with mood disorders, and exercising when you’re feeling that low-energy can be as close to impossible as it gets. Asking us to transcend the symptoms of our illness and do something that isn’t currently within our reach is a patronizing strategy.
I recently went on a Twitter rant about this exact subject and received dozens of replies from people who are also tired of exercise being framed as the great secret to managing mood or anxiety disorders.
One person described the dilemma like this: “If you haven’t had depression, you also don’t get the idea of will paralysis. ‘Just do it, you’ll feel better!’ It’s true, but when the emptiness descends, the doing of the thing is overwhelming, and then I feel [like] sh*t for not trying.”
Others who joined my conversation touched on the reality that running outside or working out in a gym full of people can itself be a big anxiety trigger.
It’s easier said than done for people with mental health issues to just hit the pavement or brave a crowded workout class. Anxiety can set in by just being out in public, feeling exposed or vulnerable while jogging outdoors. It takes a lot of practice and courage to do that.
Gym environments may also exacerbate feelings of depression or anxiety. Fitness culture in general can be a very toxic and intimidating space, often populated by ableism and fat-shaming. People with mental health issues—who may also have disabilities or invisible illnesses, or have larger bodies—may find exercising in a public setting all the more off-putting.
For example, someone shared on my Twitter thread, “Oh how true this is! You’re already anxious so go do something you’re not good at in front of a tonne [sic] of people you don’t know! No thanks.”
Even getting to and from the gym can feel like an uphill battle during a period when you feel emotionally unwell. When I moved to London last year, the closest affordable gym was 45 minutes away. On days where the only thing I’m aware of is the steady hum of my own depressed brain, a 90-minute round trip just isn’t happening.
Another Twitter user expressed similar sentiments, saying, “I used to run and am really trying to get back into it but the sheer mental wall I have to climb to get out of the front door is unreal. I’m so glad to hear it’s not just me.”
For exercise to work as a treatment method for a mental health issue, you also have to have a healthy relationship with it in the first place.
That wasn’t always the case for me, and it may not be the case for everyone with a mental illness. At the peak of my own physical fitness, I was exercising every day. I measured how many calories I burned against how many I consumed. I ran until I wanted to throw up, and I pushed myself to keep going even when I was obviously exhausted. I had a disordered relationship with exercise, and nothing about it was healthy.
Whatever burst of carefree, blissful energy I got when the workout was done was swallowed by the shame of not having done more. My perceived failures translated into future punishments and restrictions. If I didn’t hit my targets, I wouldn’t allow myself to eat as much later, or I would berate myself for the rest of the day. Exercise was hurting my mental health, so I stopped for my own sake.
Now that I’ve done some of the work to mend my relationship with exercise—I monitor my self-talk after going to the gym and totally disengage from calorie monitors on machines—it can finally be a productive part of my recovery.
The trick that has helped me get to a healthy place with exercise is allowing myself full permission to do as little as I want.
When I first began exercising regularly again, I committed to just 10 or 15 minutes a day and built on that. Now, if I ever feel the urge to push harder or compete with previous workouts, I remind myself that I’m not training for anything. I’m not trying to lose weight. I’m just trying to feel better, and there is no deadline for that.
I also cover machine display screens with my hoodie if I’m ever feeling self-destructive, or I choose to walk on the treadmill instead of run. On days when I don’t feel up to going to the gym at all, I give myself a break and I offer myself a compromise: No gym today? That’s fine. Instead, try to go for a walk around the park or do 15 minutes of a YouTube yoga video if you’re feeling up to it. I honor my feelings and my symptoms day to day, and I don’t self-punish when I’m not feeling up to doing much.
Exercise is joyful again. I do it for the way it makes me feel, but only at times when I can predict that physical activity will almost certainly have a positive effect. And at times where I’m doubting my ability to work out, I have other tools that I can implement, like going for a long, leisurely stroll or gardening. Why drag myself through a workout when I could be spending that time on other remedies that I enjoy?
So remember all this the next time you hear exercise being tossed around as an antidote to mental illness.
Sure, it can be helpful, but sometimes it just doesn’t work, and sometimes there’s no place for it. Our limits are real, and “I don’t want to” is as valid a reason as any. Don’t push, or coax, or try and coerce us. And don’t express your disappointment on days where we tell you no; this will just make us feel more crappy and less inclined to try in the future. Please do not act like we’re not willfully doing all we can to feel better when we’re not exercising.
It’s not that your advice or encouragement has no place, and we know that it comes from a well-intentioned place. Believe me, for people with depression, too, when we find something that helps us manage our symptoms, we want to let other people know about it. But it’s important to do it sensitively, and it’s far better to talk to your loved one and ask them what helps than to offer your own solutions framed as guarantees.
If you’ve been to a particularly enjoyable exercise class (ideally one where the instructor doesn’t yell or scold), ask if they’d like to go along with you sometime. Or, consider other ways to get them out of the house and moving on particularly low days. For example, an offer of a walk or a cycle that ends with me getting to eat my favorite food is hard to pass up, especially when I know there’s no pressure or shame attached to the offer.
You can also make sure your friends or loved ones know that you’d be happy to go along with them to the gym if they’re nervous. But, if they decline the offer, just remember that there may be factors holding them back that you may not understand.
Instead, trust that people with mental health disorders are far more aware of our limits than anyone else is. Practice compassion by not making assumptions about what we can and can’t do.
Depression can be a physically limiting illness, and an environment where this isn’t understood or accepted is not an environment where recovery thrives.