Exercise and Depression: How to Get Started When You Want to Stay in Bed

Exercise and Depression: How to Get Started When You Want to Stay in Bed

In the last post about exercise and depression, I discussed the benefits of exercise on depression and why it is worth it to push yourself even when you have no energy. Exercise helps with overcoming depression but are you wondering how to get motivated when you are depressed?

Depression can make it hard to get out of bed, brush your teeth and get dressed. Daily functioning can feel like a chore and even routine activities can feel completely overwhelming. Getting to work each day can feel monumental. And now you want me to exercise to help conquer depression?!!

Yes, I do! I want you to feel better!

Start with a Plan that Helps You Feel Successful

  • Can you commit to walking up and down your stairs for 5 minutes a day?
  • Walking outside for 10 minutes 3 times each week?
  • Joining a relaxing restorative yoga class once a week?
  • Can you exercise with a coworker at lunch for 15 minutes twice a week?
  • Will you park at the far end of the parking lot at work and at stores?

Exercise and Depression: Break Down Goals into Manageable Steps

Define your goals thoughtfully by making specific and achievable plans. Write your goals down and plan out the necessary steps to achieve these goals. Breaking goals into manageable steps makes them less intimidating to tackle.

Make your Goals Specific!

The more general or vague goals are, the less likely they will be achieved. It is much more effective to say “I’m going to go walking with my friend during our lunch break 3 times per week” than set a general goal like “I am going to get in shape”.

Exercise and Depression: Don’t Set Yourself up for Failure

Don’t decide your goal is to both start to run and complete a marathon all in the same year. Even if you start to run (success!) you may feel discouraged if you don’t progress to marathon distance and give up running completely. This negative cycle gets internalized: “I hate running”, “Running is too hard and I’ll never be good at it”, “I’m not strong enough to run a marathon”.

Side Note on Overcoming Depression: Make Achievable Goals in Life Too!

Setting achievable goals is not only important for success in starting exercise but important for all of life. Try to identify ways you are setting yourself up to feel like you have failed because you have set goals that are too general or focused only on the endpoint and not the steps needed to get there.

Sometimes it can be as simple as shifting your mindset to relieve this burden of negativity. For example, if you make a daily to-do list (I recommend this!) celebrate what you get done instead of putting yourself down for not completing every item. Use mantras to help set yourself up for a more positive mindset. See this post to get started: 30 Healing Mantras for Depression.

The Mindful MD Mom wrote a great post about prioritizing goals, living intentionally, being present, and stepping out of your comfort zone: 4 Steps to Live Your Best Life. She writes:

“Each day is a new opportunity to live and not just exist. Each day is a new canvas to paint the story of your life according to you. Living intentionally means making the most of your life, especially the small moments that make up each day because the choices you make today will affect your tomorrow.”

How to Get Motivated When You are Depressed: Use Organization Tools to Help

I love these daily planners and to-do lists (this link will bring you to my actual blog and there you will be able to see the planners I recommend). They include important reminders that can be helpful when you are depressed. The daily must-do list includes places to write in meals, water, gratitude, and exercise.  The weekly planner has inspirational quotes to motivate and encourage.

Importantly, make sure your daily to-do lists are actually appropriate. If they are too long, too general, and include grandiose projects that would take days to complete they will not make it easy for you to get started.

Break down huge projects into smaller steps. Don’t write “Clean out the closet”. Instead, try to list to-do items separately: “Hang up shirts”, “Get rid of 5 shirts I don’t wear”, “Pick up shoes and put them on the shelf”. Increase your chance to get things done by making a list that isn’t overwhelming.

Exercise and Depression: Getting Started

We have reviewed how to set yourself up for success with your plan so now it’s time to get to work writing out your goals. What is a good starting point for you?

Sit down and write out your achievable plan. What steps will you take this week? How many times will you exercise? What can you commit to do despite not feeling like doing anything? List everything and be as specific as possible. 

Conquering Depression with Exercise: What’s Next?

After you have written out your plans it is important to get started right away. I notice people often set a goal and then pick a future date to start. Why start next week? What will be different at that time? Why not today? If you have set your goals appropriately and reasonably there is no reason to wait to get started.

The next post in this series has suggestions on how to maintain motivation while you are recovering from depression. It is important to get started but also important to keep going. I will give you 3 ways to help you maintain forward momentum.

Interested in reading more about overcoming depression?

Visit my Mental Health Bookstore for recommended books about depression and other mental health topics.

A version of this article first appeared here

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  • James Courtenay

    Regular exercise has many emotional benefits such as gaining confidence and social interraction

  • Juo jatt


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Melissa (Wheelock) Welby, MD

Healthcare Expert

Dr. Melissa Welby is a psychiatrist that participates in people’s process of discovery, empowerment, and search for satisfaction and happiness. She treats a variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety & panic attacks, adult ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorders), bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and borderline personality disorder. She is also the current president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Association.She completed her Internship & Residency at Cambridge Hospital, affiliate of Harvard Medical School, 2000 to 2004. Dr. Melissa Welby is Board Certified in General Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 2005 to present. 


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