How many times have you gone to bed at night thinking “tomorrow, I’m going to do (blank)!”
If you’re like most people affected by anxiety and depression, this probably happens pretty often. The paradox of these types of mental health challenges is that although physical activity is often suggested as a treatment, if not a cure, from medical professionals when we are struggling, we don’t feel like doing anything at all. I’ve spoken to many people who have experienced (and know firsthand) the terrible cycle of good intentions, letting yourself down, and the guilt and shame that follows. And, of course, that often self-perpetuates into even more hopelessness and inertia.
So what can we do? Just “try” harder? Reward or deny ourselves based on whether we go for a walk? Spend $500 at an outdoors store because we’ll feel more “ready” to get out there?
Our strategy needs to be simple, realistic and most importantly, enjoyable!
For a long time, I hated going for long walks. I felt a lot of anxiety even just thinking about it. What if I wanted to go home partway through? I knew I’d get bored and feel stuck, I didn’t know where to go, and I didn’t feel like I had the right gear to go out. What helped me overcome this was first identifying what it was that I was afraid of with the walk, which were boredom and discomfort, primarily. So one thing I tried was asking a friend to go for a walk with me when I walked my dog and treating myself to a nice coffee to bring with me. Sometimes I would put in my headphones and call my mom or a friend to have a long chat. Now, a few years later, I can go out on my own for a long time and enjoy myself.
I also found it very helpful to look up different parks and trails near my house, so I could go for short walks and knew that I could go home whenever I wanted. Being somewhere familiar and knowing what to expect eased my anxiety. I’m very fortunate to live close to Stanley Park, but really, any patch of grass will do! Progress, not perfection. This also means that we need to celebrate even the smallest of successes. Perhaps you took a detour on your way home from the grocery store – great! Really pat yourself on the back and get excited. Share your victories with supportive friends and family.
Another thing to consider is what time of day is most energizing for you. My husband likes to be active in the afternoon, whereas I prefer to get outside in the morning and nap in the afternoon. Try to avoid forcing yourself to be active when it doesn’t suit your body’s natural rhythm. This adds another barrier that your “willpower” has to overcome. Some people have success with scheduling a walk after their morning coffee, on their lunch break, or after dinner. Having the walk follow another activity can signal to your brain that this is the natural next step, and saves on the use of willpower to make another decision.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that willpower is a finite resource. We don’t have unlimited amounts of it, so generally it is harder to make good decisions later in the day. This is especially true when we’re struggling with our mental health. This is why making your activity as easy as possible will increase your chances of success.
What are some of your successes? Have you been able to build a new exercise habit? What things have worked (or not worked) for you? Let us know in the comments!