Small steps to improve mental health | Health Beat


For those who feel overwhelmed about increasing their level of activity, walking is a low-intensity option that can benefit physical and mental health. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

For some, the prospect of regular, vigorous exercise is cause for excitement. It’s a path to improved health and it can deliver endless benefits in the way of energy, mood and vitality.

For those who struggle with depression and anxiety, however, the notion of physical activity can feel overwhelming.

But research has shown that even slight reductions in sedentary behavior can positively impact mood in the short-term and in the long run.

So what’s a good start?

Less than 10 minutes of exercise each day can have a positive impact on mental health, according to Allyn Richards, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Spectrum Health.

“While formal exercise is a recommended activity to combat depression and anxiety, any form of movement can help,” Dr. Richards said. “It could be gardening or housework. Even getting up and walking around during TV commercials.”

Fight the avoidance cycle

The challenge? Depression and anxiety can make it difficult to engage in physical activity.

These conditions can lead to feelings of fatigue, decreased motivation, reduced interest in activities and increased self-doubt, which can make the idea of exercise feel daunting.

It can be especially overwhelming when there are expectations to work out for extended periods of time, or at a high intensity.

Dr. Richards said this can lead to avoidance, which is often a hallmark of depression and anxiety. Avoidance provides short-term relief and reinforces inactivity, but it can contribute to worsened mood in the long-term.

A person with depression or anxiety can get stuck in this avoidance cycle. It makes it harder to experience the reward of exercise—and harder to increase feelings of motivation.

“Often, we wait to feel motivated to do something,” Dr. Richards said. “But when depressed or anxious, it is harder to experience feelings of motivation.”

A possible solution: Find ways to change the negative reward for not exercising into a positive incentive.

This often comes down to taking some action, Dr. Richards said.

“The secret is that, once action is taken, motivation and positive feelings are more likely to follow,” she said.

Getting started is usually the hardest part.

Start slow, for a short duration.

“I often encourage people to identify the smallest amount of activity that they feel willing to try, even if that is starting with one minute,” Dr. Richards said.

Planning can help.

Write out how to do a particular exercise or activity. Identify when and how you will fulfill the plan. Some people may find it helpful to put the exercise or activity plan on their daily schedule.

“The more you can reduce barriers to engaging in a plan or getting started, the better,” she said. “For example, if you’re going to exercise after work, put on your workout shoes just before you leave work so there is less need to stop and have to re-start action once you get home.”

Set reachable goals

Try to stay realistic in setting goals and meeting them, Dr. Richards said.

Your activity doesn’t have to be perfect. Break free from the all-or-nothing attitude.

“Focus on progress, not perfection,” she said. “Focusing on a full exercise regimen can be overwhelming. Something is always better than nothing. Also, making the activity fun and enjoyable can make it feel less like a chore.”

Another tip: Add a social component to the activity.

“Find an accountability partner,” Dr. Richards said. “We sometimes find it easier to honor our commitments to others than to ourselves, so making a plan to exercise with a family member or friend can be helpful.”

A group activity such as a fitness class might work for some people, she said.

Going too fast and intense at first can result in negative feelings after a workout. Feeling sore and fatigued after a workout doesn’t reinforce doing the exercise again.

For some people, a low-intensity activity helps clear the mind. A walk may be less overwhelming, and there are fewer barriers to getting started.

No matter what you choose, remember: It’s the start of a good beginning.

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