Exercise, Depression, and Anxiety: (How to Overcome Barriers to Physical Activity)

Exercise is well known for its role in the treatment of symptoms of depression and anxiety. Physical Activity is research proven to help decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, increase self-esteem and self-confidence, help in the reduction of stress levels, as well as improving cognitive performance to boot.

Less talked about is how an individual can learn to adhere to an exercise routine while currently dealing with depression and/or anxiety. While it’s easy to get someone to trust that daily exercise will benefit them in the long term, it’s a much steeper challenge to make it happen. Symptoms of depression and anxiety can create a situation where the concept of exercising as a whole becomes overwhelming. Individuals will often have the desire to start an exercise program, but lack the necessary energy or motivation to begin, only making them feel worse in the end. In other cases, anxiety can be so severe that an individual does not feel comfortable exercising in public spaces such as gyms, or public parks.

Understanding these inherent issues and learning how an individual can begin to adhere to an exercise routine while currently experiencing symptoms from depression and/or anxiety is crucial for a physical activity program to be of any benefit. These are some of the ways that basic physical activity can be introduced to someone currently dealing with depression and/or anxiety.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition. If you or anyone you know are struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255 as well as online.

1. Start Small

The main point of conflict for beginning an exercise program with depression and/or anxiety is going to be initiating exercise in the first place. It’s likely that if someone can begin exercising, they will feel better as their session progresses, or potentially post workout thanks to endorphin release. To get them to that point, however, the individual has to actually initiate exercise in the first place. For this reason, it’s important that the barrier to entry for physical activity is as low as physically possible.

Take whatever you believe “starting small” is and go about 2 steps back from there. This does not need to be an hour-long exercise routine, no special equipment needs to be involved, and you don’t even need to leave your house. The starting point can be as simple as, “get up and go for a 1-minute walk around the house”. In this case we’ve eliminated many barriers to exercise: No need to leave the house, no new skills need to be learned to perform the exercise, no need to research exercise routines, no need to change clothes, and no lengthy time requirement for the workout. While we are not guaranteeing success, we are setting up an environment in which success is more likely.

Additionally, set the expectation that any amount of physical activity for the day should be considered a win. 

The feeling of achieving smaller goals like this can help to build momentum moving forwards with physically activity. Failing what were realistically impossible to complete goals on the other hand can be demoralizing and push someone away from future exercise. Likewise, getting that first minute of physical activity is the catalyst that can lead to suddenly getting 5 minutes in…10 minutes…all of the sudden what started as 1 minute of walking turns into 15 minutes of physical activity. Initial goals for beginning an exercise routine should be extremely realistic and as easy as is possible for the individual to complete.

2. Focus On Enjoyable Physical Activity

There’s often a misconception that exercise means plodding on a treadmill for an hour, or heading to the gym to lift some weights. Somehow these are the only forms of “acceptable physical activity”. What we can often forget is that walking or biking to work, heading to the park with friends, even getting groceries from the store can all end up counting as physical activity as well.

Going along with setting realistic expectations for exercise, choose those forms of physical activity that you find most enjoyable. If you hate walking/running on a treadmill, do not realistically plan on making treadmills a part of your routine. Don’t be afraid to choose from more “non-traditional” forms of exercise, especially if they are something you find interesting, or fun.

Again, we want to reduce as many barriers to entry as possible. If an individual absolutely hates the chosen form of exercise for their physical activity, we are creating a massive barrier. Training should be less focused on what may be “optimal” from a performance aspect, but instead focused on what is most likely to get an individual to initiate exercise in the first place. For this reason it is important an exercise plan be tailored exactly to the individual, as more traditionally structured programs may not increase the likelihood of adherence to exercise.

3. Understand Exercise Does Not Require a Gym 

For many there can be a lot of anxiety based around having to exercise in front of others, or feeling embarrassed that they won’t know what they are doing in a gym.

Thankfully, there’s no need to go to a gym to get daily exercise in.

In fact, not only does eliminating a gym from an individual’s physical activity routine potentially help make them more comfortable with exercise. It’s also eliminating another barrier to exercise as we talked about above. Going to the gym, while seemingly simple on paper involves a lot of extra steps to overcome for an individual to initiate exercise. The person will likely want to be showered, dressed in fitness attire, and then figure out how they intend to travel to their gym’s location. All of this is additionally requires time and planning which can add undo stress if the person has an already busy day or feels overwhelmed with their existing schedule. Compare that with a physical activity routine which could be performed right at home, at any time, in any clothing, with no equipment required and consider which is more likely to happen?

An exercise session should be tailored to be as comfortable and enjoyable as is possible for the individual and if going to a gym is adding any undo anxiety to the situation, don’t plan on going to the gym. There is nothing inherently better that someone will be missing out on training at home compared to the gym, and the benefits they will get from performing training sessions at home will be all the same.

4. Know When It’s Okay To Rest

A major issue for establishing an exercise routine when an individual is struggling with depression and/or anxiety is that, while exercise can help in decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety, it can also exacerbate them. Failing to complete their intended physical activity for the day can increase stress and anxiety for an individual in the form of “exercise guilt”. This can create feelings of worthlessness or failure based around their inability to achieve their goal. Now, whereas physical activity was intended to help alleviate symptoms, it is only adding to them .

This is why it’s extremely important that as discussed above, starting goals for physical activity begin very small. This will setup a pattern of continuous wins, instead of stress and guilt related to difficult to complete tasks. That being said, even with a solid system of small goals in place, it’s very likely that there will be days where exercise is simply not going to happen. Establish from the very beginning that that’s okay.

Insisting that someone guarantee they accomplish their exercise routine for the day regardless of all other factors is only going to create a negative association with exercise. Physical activity sessions should not be something that have to be forced or grinded out “no matter what” and if someone is lacking the necessary energy or motivation to complete exercise for the day, it’s better they know their limits and take the time to rest.

This is not failure because the individual in question is not trying hard enough, or they need to be better. This is symptoms of depression and/or anxiety limiting ones ability to exercise and it’s okay to acknowledge that. A small amount of self compassion can go along way in establishing a healthy relationship with exercise, while also knowing ones limits.

5. Continue Trying 

In strength training you never have the expectation that a client is going to nail technique cues 100% the first time they attempt a new movement. The movement is learned by trying it, failing at it, and continuously correcting as you go. No good coach will give up on their client because they didn’t succeed on their very first try, and it’s accepted that the initial failure is part of the process at becoming successful at the movement.

Consider this when it comes to establishing an exercise routine.

As with establishing essentially any intended behavior change, regardless of what it is, it’s extremely likely that adherence is not going to be 100% right out of the starting gate. Eventually you are going to hit a snag in the road, fall off for a day, a week, a month, a whole year…doesn’t matter. What’s more important is understanding that this is actually part of the process of getting to that 100% (or near 100%) adherence. Simply stated, falling off of your established routine for physical activity does not mean you have failed for the rest of your life.

Consider each “falling off point” only as a source of data for you moving forwards to create a better plan and nothing else. Maybe you don’t like a certain form of exercise as much as you thought, maybe you’ve found a time of the day where you have more energy to exercise, or you’ve found a new routine entirely that you like. You can use this information to pick back up where you left off, and hopefully it get’s a little better every time you try. The less negative association there is with missing a period of time of physical activity, the more likely the individual will be willing to come back and try again, as this continual trial and error over a long period of time is what can lead to establishing a more consistent routine.





Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.