Exercise can be an effective way to improve your mood. Even when you’re low on energy, there are ways you can make your movement more fun.

Man taking a walk in a park to counter depression symptomsShare on Pinterest
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Whether you live with depression or have simply been feeling down lately, exercise can really help lift your mood.

Physical activity can improve symptoms of depression, reduce stress levels, and support both your mental and physical health.

But when you’re depressed, it can be hard to get moving. Symptoms of depression, like low energy and motivation, make everything a bit harder, but there are still ways you can exercise and boost your mood without feeling like you need to spend 2 hours in a gym.

The best exercises for depression are the ones that work for you, even when you’re feeling down.

When a doctor tells you that exercise can reduce the severity of your depression symptoms, it may feel like it’s about your physical health more than your mental health, but research has shown the mental health benefits of exercise.

According to 2019 research, routine exercise can help with depression.

Numerous studies have backed this up in some way. A review of research in 2013 found that exercise reduced depression symptoms when compared to not exercising at all. A 2017 trial suggests that even light exercise could improve symptoms.

Physical activity stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters that can boost your mood, such as:

Research in 2017 suggests that exercise can benefit the parts of the brain responsible for stress and mood regulation that can contribute to depression.

While exercising has a lot of benefits, this isn’t to say that it can simply replace depression treatments like therapy or medication. Exercise is just one more helpful tool for managing depression and improving your mood.

One of the biggest challenges to exercising when you’re depressed is that motivation and energy can be at an all-time low.

If you enjoy working out, getting motivated can be easier. But if exercising is hard when your mood is low, you can try forms of movement that don’t necessarily feel like exercise.

1. Act like a kid

Acting like a kid is a great way to get more physical activity in your life. Consider visiting a park and trying out the jungle gym, or even climbing a tree.

If you’re able to gather some friends — young or old — to kick around a ball or play hide-and-seek, that’s even better. Adding social interaction to your activities can make things more fun, help you feel supported, and encourage all of you to get together again soon.

2. Tend a garden

Gardening can be a fantastic form of physical activity. It can also be relaxing to connect with nature and get some fresh air (though you can tend to indoor plants, too).

Plus, there’s something super satisfying about watching your seedlings grow throughout a season.

Research also suggests that gardening has mental health benefits. For example, a small 2010 study found that gardening reduced acute stress in participants. In a small study in 2011, researchers gave people with depression a 12-week gardening intervention and found that their depression symptoms improved significantly after 12 weeks.

3. Try temptation bundling

“Temptation bundling” is a method that many people use to increase their physical activity. Basically, temptation bundling is combining something you enjoy doing with something you need to do or that’s on your to-do list (in this case, exercise).

This works by setting up a rule like, “I’ll do [insert pleasurable activity here], but only while exercising.” That way, the idea of exercising becomes more appealing and the actual act will become more enjoyable and fun.

For example, you might enjoy listening to your favorite podcast, but you can only listen to it while on a walk. Or you might only play a specific video game while cycling on a stationary bike.

No matter what the enjoyable act is, if you can pair it with physical activity, it hopefully won’t seem so difficult to start each time.

4. Take a pet for a stroll

Taking your dog (or cat!) for a walk is a great way to cross two activities off your list. You can get your daily movement in while giving your pet some extra attention.

Getting into a walking routine with a pet can be a simple and pleasurable way to get exercise.

If you don’t have a pet at the moment, many shelters need volunteers to walk or play with their animals. Consider this an option if you still want to walk a dog but don’t currently have one.

5. Exercise… on your mattress

If you’re not able to get out of bed on those rough days, you can even exercise while staying in bed.

You can exercise in the supine position — that is, lying down, face up, with your feet on the mattress while lifting your legs and lower body in intervals.

You can also try yoga inversions, like Viparita Karani, which involves lying down while putting your legs up the wall.

6. Try Geocaching

Geocaching is pretty much a worldwide treasure hunt that involves finding knick-knacks hidden around your area via the Geocaching app. And even better, it’s completely free.

Finding the cache often involves a bit of walking (or hiking), but because you’re focusing on the cache, it doesn’t always feel like exercise. Another benefit is that you get to see new and interesting places, like parks and natural spaces.

7. Gamify your exercise

Making exercise more fun is a great way to get yourself to do more of it by turning it into a little game. You can gamify your routine by setting realistic, achievable goals, checking boxes off of a checklist, or earning “rewards” for completing tasks.

A common example of gamifying exercise is a fitness tracker. For some people, tracking your steps and activity can be motivating, especially as you see your progress move you closer to your goals.

Virtual reality (VR) games can also combine exercise with fun. Apps like Strava or mobile games like Pokémon GO track how far you walk around town and reward your physical activity.

8. Go for a walk

All walking counts. You can walk while you text, walk when you’re talking on the phone, or walk while you online shop (as long as you’re careful!). Walking during work meetings can also be a great way to improve productivity while getting in some extra activity.

You can try to make walking enjoyable for you — maybe you can walk to your favorite coffee or ice cream shop, snap some pictures of nature around you, or walk with a friend or co-worker.

While depression symptoms can make working out a challenge, physical activity — however you get it — can help boost your mood and well-being.

Just remember: When exercising, it’s important to listen to your body. You don’t want to work out when you’re sick or injured, or push yourself too far when you’re first starting an exercise routine.

Consider ways to move that bring you joy. After all, the point is to help you feel better both mentally and physically.