How to Exercise on a Bad Mental Health Day

This post is part of September’s My Mighty Month Challenge. You can learn more about the challenge and sign-up here

Beyond feeling the burn of your workout routine, one of the toughest parts of exercising — if not the hardest — is showing up. If you have a mental illness or are feeling depressed, taking care of yourself and getting yourself to the gym can be incredibly difficult.

To help you to get out and get going, we spoke to three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton, who lives with bipolar disorder, to see how she motivates herself on difficult mental health days.

1. Start Small

On days where your mental health makes it difficult to get out of bed, start small. “Just getting out of bed is a huge step,” Hamilton said. “Feel good about that, and then maybe can you get out of bed and walk around the block once.”

Work your way up to a bigger goal by breaking it down into smaller components. Be kind to yourself with each step, and celebrate each goal you reach, whether it’s big or small.

2. Workout With a Friend

Having a hard time motivating yourself? Communicate your goals and intentions with a friend or loved one and ask them if they can help you meet your goals.

Not only is it OK to ask for help, but by exercising with a friend you’re helping them stay active, too.

3. Think of It as Part of Your Treatment

Exercise may not replace your medication or therapy sessions, but it can help you feel better. Work exercise into your routine the same way you’d set a reminder to take your meds or schedule time to see a doctor.

In addition to running, one exercise Hamilton said she gets a lot of benefit from is yoga.”I feel 100 times better after I finish a class,” she said. “And I realized, exercise is probably the most powerful drug for me.”

4. Make a Playlist

“I’ve used [music] all my life to help me feel good,” Hamilton said, adding how music helps her calm her brain and get rid of negative thoughts.

Need some music recommendations? Here are some playlists curated by The Mighty’s mental health community.

5. Choose a Place That Will Inspire You

If motivating yourself to run on the treadmill in your basement doesn’t seem appealing, take your workout outside and pick a scenic route to walk or run.

Choosing a location where other people exercise, like a park or your local track, can inspire you to get moving as well. “Put yourself in an environment where that might help to motivate you,” Hamilton recommended.

6. Treat Yourself

Budget permitting, treat yourself to something nice. Buy a new outfit or sneakers to workout in or pick something you feel comfortable and confident in.

“Just have it sitting by the door with your music so you see it and maybe it clicks in your mind and is a reminder,” she said.

7. Give Yourself Permission to Take Time Off

If getting out of bed is just not happening, let that be OK.

“Give yourself permission to not workout,” she said. “It’s OK if for five days you just can’t workout. Then maybe on that sixth day you can do it, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Just because you can’t get out of bed doesn’t mean you are a failure — so go easy on yourself, just like you would when you don’t feel “physically” well. As Hamilton said, “You have a mental illness and there are going to be challenges.” Even moving a little can have positive benefits, so do as much as you can.

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