Depressed Exercising - Dealing With Reverse Motivation

Depressed Exercising - Dealing With Reverse Motivation

Anyone who knows depression will recognise the dark slowness it brings. Everything feels pointless and even the gentlest walk is like wading through thick grey air with heavy, reluctant limbs.

It’s at times like this where you need to get active. Exercising can help improve symptoms of depression (1). For me it acts as a reset button. As I run I find a calm, positive sensation starts to spread gently through the foggy corners of my mind. The tightness in my throat loosens and I can see my way ahead again.

But depression is a tricky beast. Not only does it affect your mood, it also affects your motivation. Even if you’re usually pounding the treadmill every day, depression can remove the motivation to do it again.

Reverse motivation

Cognitive therapists call this reverse motivation (2). Depression reverses the motivation process. Normally we wait until we want to do something and then we do it. But when we’re depressed, we often have to start doing a positive action BEFORE we are able to want to do it.

Let me try and explain. When I’m well my motivation is made up of a complex mix of intellectual and emotional reasons. I know going for a run will make me feel good AND I can remember and imagine that feeling. It’s a no brainer.

But when I’m depressed, my initial motivation is very thin. Rationally I know that going for a run will make me feel better but emotionally I’ve got nothing. I can’t imagine what feeling better is going to look like.  That makes it much harder to get going.

It’s only when I get started and I’m feeling the benefits that I begin to remember what feeling better actually feels like. Then I want to keep going and I come home transformed.

Dealing with fatigue

Depression plays another nasty mental trick as well. When we’re not depressed, feeling tired usually means we want to rest. We rest and feel refreshed. But the heavy fatigue we feel when depressed is not like normal tiredness. It doesn’t go away if we rest. In many cases, increased activity for a while will actually help.

Reversing the reversal - getting back on top

So how do we beat these nasty pieces of mental trickery? Here are some of my ideas.

  • Recognise it. Knowing the tricks our mind can play means we are more able to recognise them when they start to appear.
  • Have faith. Even if you can’t imagine what feeling better will be like, give it a go anyway. You’ve got nothing to lose.
  • Write a mantra. Next time you exercise and feel better for it, write yourself a note. Pin this up somewhere you will see next time. It might help you keep faith.
  • Know what works for you. Find the exercise that does the job. Some people run, some swim, some do yoga or rowing.
  • Keep your gear to hand. Sometimes the urge to give up, to collapse on the bed or sofa, can be incredibly strong. The easier we make it to get out of the door, onto the treadmill or the rowing machine, the more likely we are to take that difficult first step.

Do share what works for you. It might just help someone else get going too.


(1)     Rimer J, Dwan K, Lawlor D, Greig C, McMurdo M, Morley W, et al. (2012). Exercise for depression. Contract No.: Art. No.: CD004366.

(2)     Segal, Williams and Teasdale. (2002) Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (pg 274)

About the author

"Clare (@fostress) writes and works for Mind, Time To Change, The Miscarriage Association and YouthNet. She blogs about mental health and manages her depression and anxiety by running with her collie Dr Watson."