The way out of a low mood is to move. Too often, exercise is primarily understood as a weight-management tool – the psychological effects being a bonus.
I suggest you flip it: Frame exercise as a mood-management tool with everything else being the bonus.
According to Dr. Patrick Smith, chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association, physical activity is increasingly a vital component in treating mental-health disorders. It helps reduce anxiety and depression and it reduces tension, fatigue and anger, as well as enhances self-esteem and social bonds.
You don't have to have a mental-health disorder to actively use exercise as part of your recipe for overall psychological well-being.
As Smith noted in our conversation, "physiology and psychology are connected; everything physiological has a psychology component and vice versa."
Psychological well-being is analogous to physical health. Physical health exists on a continuum – you shouldn't wait for a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease or diabetes to prioritize motion.
Mental health also exists on a continuum; you don't need a clinical diagnosis to have an attitude of growth toward your psychological well-being. One way to positively affect your psychological health – your mood, your energy, your friendships, your feelings of self-worth – is to move.
I always tell my clients, "The worse your mood, the more important the workout. Move – even for just 10 minutes. You will feel better."
The problem is, the lower your mood, the harder it is to find motivation to move. Inactivity precipitates a negative downward cycle – not moving breeds frustration, which makes you more demoralized and less motivated. Plus, the less you move the less fit you become, which makes doing everything harder, thus lowering your motivation further.
The cycle continues – until you stop it. Don't wait to feel motivated to move. Move to create motivation.
Three tips to stop the cycle
1. Embrace that exercise can happen anywhere and some motion is always better than no motion.
When you are feeling low, angry, anxious or frustrated engage in any – no matter how small – amount of motion.
Exercise doesn't have to be intense or done at the gym to be worthwhile; it just has to happen. Can't go for your 30 minute walk? Do 20. Can't get out at lunch? Pace during conference calls.
2. Learn from others and work to create your own strategies for success.
I interviewed two truly inspiring women – Andrea Ross and Adrienne Paddock. Ross has been diagnosed with PTSD and dissociative identity disorder. Paddock is recovering from an opioid addiction. Both hold an almost breathtaking level of emotional maturity, and both consciously use exercise as part of their personalized strategy for improved mental and physical well-being.
Consciously and personalized are key words. You have to actively foster your mental health. Learn from others, then experiment until you find the strategies that work for you.
Paddock recommends creating a support system; use every available resource. Health is a process and it is hard to make healthy changes on your own – so don't.
Dr. Smith suggests looking for the "next right step." Instead of feeling overwhelmed by an all-or-nothing understanding of fitness, ask yourself what small thing you could do now. Could you go for a walk? Drink a glass of water? Crack a smile? Even brainstorming how you might get off the sofa next time is a step in the right direction.
Ross suggests embracing the fact that when you are anxious, angry or depressed you have the power to consciously choose to do something about it – choose to move. Ross has a list of go-to workouts to help manage specific emotions. If she feels panic, she runs her office stairwell. If she feels rage, she does body-weight exercises such as squats. When anxious she goes for a walk.
3. Know that you are not alone.
Everyone – including me, who mostly loves to exercise – goes through periods of low motivation.
Emotions fluctuate; as Dr. Smith aptly put it, "motivation is not a steady state." Embrace that sometimes you will feel less motivated. That is okay as long as you create strategies – in advance – to use during low moments.
Make daily motion non-negotiable – a "when" not an "if." Find what works for you. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what works for Ross, Paddock, Dr. Smith or me – it only matters what works for you. Remember, no one created their strategy overnight. Persevere until you have your own "recipe"; just make sure your recipe contains some form of motion. So, get up and stretch or take a walk. To paraphrase Ross, be willing to look like a dork. Who cares if you have to exercise in your work clothes? Make managing your mood – not managing your ego – the priority.
Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.