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How to Exercise When Depressed — Even if You Prefer Staying in Bed

How to Exercise When Depressed -- Even if You Prefer Staying in BedWant to treat your depression quickly, safely and for free? Exercise!

It works, has no side effects (unless you really overexert yourself) and is great for your mental and physical well-being in every respect. In fact, a recent review of over 26 years of research shows that moderate physical activity each day — even something as simple as gardening — can prevent depression in all age groups, not just treat it. So exercise as part of a depression treatment strategy really is a no-brainer!

But let’s face it, you don’t really want to exercise, do you? I know that feeling. Maybe you’re reading this article as part of a desperate effort not to do any physical activity!

It’s Not Just You

Alastair Campbell In Back From The Brink, I interviewed Alastair Campbell, who served as Chief Advisor to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Alastair’s battle with depression is well-publicized and he is a vocal critic of mental health stigma.

For Alastair, keeping fit is a crucial part of his daily regime and he acknowledges the importance of exercise to his mental well-being. When he ran the 2003 London Marathon, sponsored by then-U.S. President George W. Bush, he drew a lot of media attention.

But Alastair admits that when he’s depressed, even he finds it harder to generate the enthusiasm and energy required for exercise, despite this being such an important and enjoyable part of his life.

It’s a problem that affects many of us when suffering from depression or the lows of bipolar disorder. Even thinking of exercise is tiring. Exercise involves working up a sweat, long runs, exhaustion or hours in expensive gyms, right?


If you realize that exercise is not synonymous with marathons or intensive workouts, the fear and aversion subsides. Starting exercise doesn’t mean starting significant exercise and it doesn’t have to be hard work.

Whisker Goals: Breaking Things into Manageable Chunks

Whisker Goals are small, no-stress goals. You set yourself a very small, easily achievable goal and then do it, without thinking about anything larger and doing nothing more than just that whisker goal.

The main purpose of whisker goals is very simple: You set and achieve small, realistic goals and prove to yourself that you are capable. Then you slowly scale up those goals.

Imagine a thoroughly messy cupboard in your house. You’ve been meaning to clean it for ages, but the thought of tackling all that disorganization puts you off. You’ll do anything but take on this mammoth task, which could take you hours or even days.

But what if you set a whisker goal of spending just five minutes a day cleaning that cupboard? Set a timer, open the door, work on what is in front of you and — bing! — as soon as the timer goes off, close the cupboard door, no matter where you’re at.

Five minutes a day. For a week. The next week, you increase that time to 10 minutes a day. The next week, 15 minutes.

Pretty soon, without even realizing it, that mammoth task of cleaning the cupboard was completed and was nowhere near as painful as you thought it’d be. Because instead of doing it all at once, you used whisker goals to break the project into small, manageable chunks.

Walk To The Mailbox & Back

The same strategy applies to exercise — start off with tiny whisker goals and slowly work your way up from there.

After reading this article, put on your running shoes and walk to the mailbox, then back to your house. That’s your exercise for the day (and maybe the next day) done!

After that, maybe walk to the end of your block. The day after, to a shop a block or two away – make sure to reward yourself with a treat or your favorite snack!

By doing this, you build up your level of exercise and prove to yourself that you can set and achieve small and manageable goals. That can do wonders for your self-belief. As you slowly ratchet up the distance or intensity of a particular exercise, you’ll quickly feel the self-reinforcing benefits that regular exercise brings to the mind and body.

Whisker goals make exercising easy and manageable when you have depression or bipolar disorder. But you have to act on those goals, not just set them. Otherwise, the only exercise you’ll be doing is in procrastination.

How to Exercise When Depressed — Even if You Prefer Staying in Bed

Graeme Cowan

Graeme Cowan’s book, Back From The Brink, brings you true stories from well-known and everyday people, and practical help for overcoming depression and bipolar disorder. Touching, moving and often surprising, the stories in Back From The Brink are living proof that you too can overcome depression, using the tools and resources provided in the book.

He went through a five-year episode of depression which his psychiatrist described as the worst he had ever treated and which nearly cost him his life. But after writing his suicide note in 2004, Graeme found the help and support he needed to bounce back and thrive, and has dedicated his life to helping others do the same.

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APA Reference
Cowan, G. (2018). How to Exercise When Depressed — Even if You Prefer Staying in Bed. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 Nov 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.