How to Stay Motivated to Exercise When You Have Anxiety

By Lydia Smith,
updated on Jan 6, 2020

How to Stay Motivated to Exercise When You Have Anxiety

Just because something is good for us, doesn’t make it easy to do – especially when anxiety puts up roadblocks. Here are seven simple steps to help maintain that motivation...

Exercise is hugely beneficial to our mental health, but when you struggle with anxiety or depression, finding the motivation to get active can be a challenge. It can leave you zapped of energy and drive, making it feel impossible to get out of bed in the morning – let alone go for a jog.

Most of us will have skipped the gym to spend time on the sofa at some point. But for those with a mental health problem, low motivation, fatigue, and loss of interest in activities, are prominent symptoms.

“I definitely do find it difficult,” says Freddie Cocker, founder and editor-in-chief of the mental health platform Vent. “Normally when I’ve come home from a tough day at work, or it’s in the bleak winter and I have to train on my own.”

Given the importance of that mind-connection, here are a few ideas to help maintain motivation, and make exercising a little easier.

Exercise with someone else

Getting a friend to join you for a walk, run, or class can really help boost motivation, as it makes exercise seem like less of a chore – and far less overwhelming.

two women exercising together

“If you have a friend to train with, you can motivate each other to train harder than you would do on your own,” says Freddie. “When you exercise with someone else, you can catch-up, chat about life, hobbies, and interests, with exercise fitted around it.”

Get into a routine

Fitting exercise into your routine, such as after lunch, is a good way to incorporate physical activity into your day without it seeming daunting.

“Routine is a really good way of motivating the mind,” says Dr Christian Buckland, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. “If we know when we are getting up in the morning, or when we are having breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we can feel less overwhelmed by other tasks, as the day is broken down into manageable sections.”

Start off small

“Something as simple as walking to work instead of taking public transport is a really great start,” says Hannah Horlick, personal trainer at Reach Fitness. “On a walk in the morning, you can listen to some music or a podcast, or just take notice of your surroundings.”

Turn it around

“We often mistakenly do things back to front – our thought process that says, ‘Exercise will make me feel better. Therefore I should exercise,’” says Katerina Georgiou, a counsellor and psychotherapist. “Try turning that thought the other way round: ‘When I feel well, I’m more likely to exercise. Therefore I should do things to feel well.’

It’s surprising how much more resilience we can have for things like exercise when we first make space for the things we love

“It’s surprising how much more resilience we can have for things like exercise when we first make space for the things we love,” she adds. “If there’s a song you love listening to, or seeing friends, then do those things first and often! It will put you in a better emotional space to tackle more taxing tasks later.”

Find the stumbling block

It can be helpful to work out what is stopping you from exercising to try to overcome this. “If you’re tired after work, do something before work,” says Georgiou. “If it’s the faff of getting changed, try walking around the block.”

For Melanie Daffin, music helped reduce her anxiety about the gym. “I was scared of exercising in front of others, and the amount of people also worried me,” she says. “I’ve thankfully managed to overcome that by using my headphones. I end up zoning out into my own world and not caring what people think.”

Find something you love

Exercising doesn’t have to mean pounding the pavements – whether it’s gentle yoga or stretching, there’s bound to be an exercise that suits you. “I know classes can be a little daunting, but get in contact with the gym and let them know your situation. In general, they will make you feel very welcome and look out for you,” says personal trainer Hannah.

“I get really anxious going to anything I haven’t been to before on my own, but if you are heading to a fitness class, there will be like- minded people there, going for the same reasons as you.

“Personal training sessions aren’t in everyone’s budget, but if your anxiety is severe, that really could be the best way for you to start,” Hannah adds. “A personal trainer can completely tailor a programme to your goals.”

Exercising in the comfort of your lounge can also ease the anxiety of going into a busy gym – and there are lots of easy-to-follow YouTube videos, too.

Think about the benefits

Being physically active isn’t the only answer to a mental health problem, but it can help.

“Exercise has been massive for my mental health, I really can’t oversell it,” Freddie says.

“Being alone with my thoughts for a long period of time is a recipe for trouble in my life, so having another distraction makes a huge difference, and being able to make new friends tin my gym has been a great benefit
as well.”

By Lydia Smith

Lydia Smith is a UK-based journalist who has written for national newspapers and magazines with a focus on health, wellbeing and human rights.

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