If you live where winter means snow, ice and mud, you may have avoided exercising, or may have been promising yourself that when spring comes, you will exercise regularly. Now is the time to begin! With spring right around the corner, you can’t afford to put it off any longer. And if you live where winter is just beginning, exercise will help keep you well through this dark season.

Any form of regular exercise holds the promise of increased energy and renewed vitality. For people who experience depression or other troubling mental health symptoms, exercise often helps relieve these symptoms, and leads to increased levels of wellness and stability. People have reported to me that, when they exercise, they sleep better, can think more clearly, have less nervousness and anxiety, feel happy and content more often, feel better about themselves, lose weight, develop strength, and enjoy a sense of well-being. Many people even report that they look and feel younger when they exercise regularly!

I have heard of doctors who prescribe an exercise routine instead of, or in addition to, medications. For people who can’t afford expensive medications, exercise may be one route to better health. Some have even referred to exercise as the cheapest and most available antidepressant.

First Steps to Starting an Exercise Program

Before you begin to exercise, call your physician and arrange for a physical examination if you:

  • Haven’t been exercising at all for some time and you lead a sedentary lifestyle;

  • Are over the age of 60;
  • Have a health problem or disability that might be affected by exercise;
  • Haven’t seen your doctor in a long time; or
  • Just feel it’s the right thing to do.

Ask your doctor to recommend, based on her or his findings, an exercise program that would be practical, safe and healthy for you. Your doctor may want to refer you to a physical therapist or another specialist for more information before making final recommendations, or so that she or he can help you to develop an exercise plan.

If you have been doing some exercise and know it is not enough, and do not have age, health or disability issues to address, begin your exercise program or your increase in exercise gradually. Your body adapts more easily to gradual change and you will miss out on all the aches and pains that come with too much exercise before your body is ready for it. A warm bath after you exercise the first few times will help to relieve those aches and pains that come when you inadvertently over-exercise.

Assess the exercise you have been getting—whether it is exercise for the sake of exercise, or exercise you get as part of your job or daily routine. For instance, if you walk up three flights of stairs each day to get to your office, consider that part of your current exercise program. Perhaps you have to walk two blocks from the train station to your apartment. Or you spend some time each day bending and lifting as you stock shelves. Maybe you spend time providing care for one or several active toddlers.

Decide what would fit into your schedule that would provide you with some increase in your daily physical activity—again, not too drastic. You might start by walking for ten more minutes. Or you might build a 20-minute bicycle ride into your day. Perhaps it would be 20 minutes more working outside in your garden.

Choosing the Right Exercise Program for You

When setting up an exercise program that is right for you, focus your attention on what you enjoy. If you are the kind of person who enjoys team support, you may want to sign up with the local softball league for some of your exercise. If solitary exercise feels best to you, think of things you can do by yourself. You may enjoy hiking but not swimming. A brisk ride on a bicycle may be perfect for you. Is it swimming, hiking, dancing, working out on exercise machines while watching videos, skating, outdoor chores like raking the lawn or cutting wood, walking, yoga? Any kind of exercise is acceptable!

You can do the same kind of exercise every day or vary it according to the weather, what you feel like and the things you need to get done. You may spend part of your exercise time doing one kind of exercise and part of the time doing another. You might work in the garden and then go for a walk. This makes exercise more interesting for some of us.

Health clubs are wonderful for people who enjoy exercising with others in an atmosphere that is pleasant and sociable. Joining a health club is a wonderful—but not a necessary—treat, should you be able to afford it. Don’t put off exercise until you have enough money to join a health club. Or until you can purchase expensive exercise clothing or equipment. Most exercise doesn’t take special clothing or equipment—just a lot of willpower.

It may help you to decide what kind of exercise you are going to do if you make a list of exercise options and post it in a convenient place. Then you can look at the list each day and decide how you are going to get your exercise that day. If it is raining, you may want to dance to your favorite CD rather than take your usual walk. If the softball team doesn’t have a game, you may want to catch up on outdoor chores.

Walking Is a Good Choice for Many

Walking deserves special focus because it is often the easiest, most convenient and best exercise for many people. It works well because:

  • No special equipment is necessary, except for a good pair of walking shoes (which you should have anyway).

  • It doesn’t cost anything.
  • It is noncompetitive, so old feelings of not being as good as others don’t come up.
  • You can walk anytime, anywhere that is safe. You may walk on the track at the local school after school hours. I find that walking on one of the rural walking trails or abandoned roads in our area has the added benefit of communion with nature.
  • You can walk in whatever you happen to be wearing.
  • You don’t have to change your clothes or take a shower after walking.
  • It is very unlikely that you will incur the type of overuse injuries that occur with other types of exercise.

Difficulty Beginning or Sticking to an Exercise Program

Like most people, you may have difficulty beginning or sticking to an exercise program. You may feel that you don’t have time, that it interferes with other responsibilities and that you won’t enjoy it. Perhaps one or several of the following suggestions would help you to resolve this problem:

  • Consider your exercise time as fun or “play” time, not as work. Everyone needs and deserves to have time to play.

  • Ask friends or family members to exercise with you.
  • Reward yourself each time you exercise or after you have followed your exercise plan for a specific length of time. You could put aside a dollar each time you exercise to save for something you have been wanting like an article of clothing, a CD or a meal at a restaurant you enjoy. After a week of successful exercise, you might treat myself to a healthy lunch out with a special friend. After exercising becomes part of your routine, you won’t need to reward yourself, as you will find that the exercise itself is ample reward.
  • Combine exercise with other strategies you use to keep yourself well, such as:
  • Using a light box;
  • Focusing on positive thoughts; and/or
  • Connecting with family members and supporters.
  • Schedule exercise at the same time each day to provide structure and help to insure continuation of your exercise program.
  • If you find it difficult to exercise in the winter and in bad weather, you may want to get a piece of exercise equipment such as an exercise bicycle or rowing machine. You can often find these at very low prices in the bargain sections of the newspaper (being sold by people who had good intentions but never followed through), at second hand stores or at local “swap shops.”
  • Avoid sabotaging yourself. If you miss a day, several days or even weeks of exercise, don’t give up and stop exercising. Just start in again. If you have a long hiatus or have stopped exercising because of an injury or illness, start again gradually.

    Keeping Track Can Keep You on Track

    Regular exercise has many benefits. It may help you to stick to your exercise regime if you keep a record of your exercise and how it makes you feel. Each time you exercise, write a few sentences in a notebook that describe what you did, how you felt before you did it, how you felt after you did it, and any short- or longer-term benefits you are noticing. This helps to keep you on track and, if you review your writings from time to time, can be a strong motivator to continue your program.

Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.