When we are encouraged to do more exercise or become more physically active to support our mental health, many of us will immediately think of having to join and go to a gym.
We may also have expectations of what people who regularly go to the gym look like.
Our imagination may trick us into believing that gyms are places where we need to be award-winning athletes, with perfectly toned bodies and six packs, to fit in with the gym community and to be accepted without judgement.
And if we don’t feel comfortable about how we look, or having the right clothing, we may see the gym as a place where our needs to feel safe, included, and free from judgement are unlikely to be met.
Feeling uncomfortable about going to the gym makes it unlikely that we will feel motivated about exercise and becoming more physically active.
We may then start to feel guilty about our lack of motivation and criticise ourselves for being lazy.
Punishing ourselves with self-criticism, having unrealistic expectations, and making unhelpful comparisons with others, all reduce motivation to get moving.
People who study motivation have found that we are more motivated by rewards than by punishments.
So, instead of punishing ourselves, we need to focus on rewards to boost motivation. Or to put it another way, we need more carrots and fewer sticks.
We can start to reduce the sticks by making our expectations about exercise more realistic and achievable. And importantly, by dispelling the myth that exercise means going to the gym.
Any movements we make which lift our heart rate and keep us mobile count as physical activity.
These can be simple movements like stretching our arms above our heads every half an hour. Or standing up if you’re able to.
Take time to notice changes in breathing and mood when you do.
If there are stairs where you live, you might count the number of times you go up and down the stairs each day and notice if you feel your mood lift afterwards.
Walking to or around the shops, and household activities which involve standing up and moving, all count too. So do things like cooking or vacuuming.
So that’s our first stick gone, that physical activity means going to the gym.
And we now have our first carrot too, which is that even simple movements count as physical activity.
And if you do like going to the gym, you can add that to your bunch of carrots as well.
Another stick we may need to overcome are the unpleasant expectations of how exercise might make us feel.
When we think about physical activity, we may begin to recall memories of feeling out of breath, sweaty, suffering with aches and pains the day after taking exercise, or even memories of injuries we may have picked up in the past.
These are some big sticks, but the best way to deal with them is to stack the scales with carrots.
When any unpleasant memories of exercise pop up, be ready to counter them with pleasurable memories of physical activity.
That might include the memory of a sunny day walking in the park or in the countryside.
It could be the memory of how alive we feel when our muscles are warmed up, our heart and lungs are working more easily, and we can breathe more easily.
We may choose to recall the experience of the release of pleasure chemicals, like endorphins, during exercise.
This can be particularly powerful during the winter months, when it gets colder and darker early on and the sofa looks more appealing than going out for a walk, a run or to an exercise class.
Counter the appeal of the sofa by recalling how much pleasure you’ve had from spending time with other people and meeting social needs, and feeling yourself getting fitter, stronger and healthier.
Another big carrot to remind ourselves of is the benefit of movement for both our mental health and physical wellbeing.
For instance, by increasing the amount of movement we do, we reduce stress hormones, but also the proteins which keep the inflammation response switched on.
Research shows that 20 minutes of exercise significantly reduces inflammation and the symptoms of depression.
But we don’t need to do 20 minutes straight away. We can start slowly and gently, noticing how movement improves our mood.
And every time we add to our memories of enjoying exercise we boost motivation for movement, by adding more carrots, not sticks.
We may have heard, or been told about, the benefits of movement and physical activity for improving mental health.
We may know that when we exercise, we receive rewards in the form of feel- good endorphins.
We may also know that physical activity can burn off nasty cortisol stress hormones, which can trigger mental ill health and physical illness if they persist over time.
But is knowing about the benefits to our mental health enough to encourage us to move more?Often the answer is no.
This is because mental ill health can present barriers to getting motivated.
The first barrier is linked to the quality of sleep we get.
If we become stressed and anxious from worrying lots about unmet emotional needs, we may find it difficult to get to sleep.
And when we do get to sleep, we will spend more time dreaming as the brain tries to calm down worry and stress from the previous day.
Intense dreaming then burns off lots of the brain’s energy, causing people to wake up feeling tired the next day and lacking in motivation.
This is how depression begins.
It is unsurprising that the intense dreaming people do when experiencing depression may drain their motivation to get moving.
But there is another barrier to being physically active, which may come with stress, anxiety and for some people who experience depression.
This barrier to getting motivated to move is sometimes called ‘sickness behaviour.’
Short-term stress can switch on the body’s inflammation response.
The inflammation response is nature’s way of defending us from bacteria, stopping the spread of infection and healing the body.
However, chronic stress can cause the inflammation response to become overactive.
Parts of the body can then become over-inflamed, including the heart and other organs, but also the parts of the brain which are affected by depression.
When this happens, we can begin to feel as if we are sick and in need of rest and recovery. This can result in ‘sickness behaviour.’
When animals living in the wild become sick, they may withdraw from the rest of their herd or pack and spend time alone, in order to recover and so as not to infect other members of the group.
They may sleep more, become less physically active, and experience changes in their appetite for food.
This ‘sickness behaviour’ is a lot like the human experience of depression.
People become withdrawn, losing the desire to socialise with others. They feel tired most of the time, and experience a loss or gain in appetite.
Of course, if we are spending all our time alone, and nobody is coming to check up on us, we are likely to become socially isolated.
Then our needs for community, sharing attention, and maintaining an emotional connection with someone will go unmet.
This will keep us stressed, leading to lots of exhausting dreaming. The increased dreaming which causes depression prevents deep sleep from healing the body, and so the inflammation response is left switched on.
So, if we are experiencing depression and feel the need to withdraw from others, what can we do to get back our motivation to move?
The first thing to acknowledge is that feeling the need to withdraw is nature’s way of encouraging us to heal and take care of ourselves.
But sometimes this response can be unhelpful if it’s overactive.
And when we know this, we can take steps to slowly switch this response off.
We can start to do this by using our imagination.
Imagination allows us to rehearse how we meet needs in the future.
Try using your imagination positively, and see yourself doing simple movements on a regular basis and feeling good about it.
Those simple movements could be stretching our arms above our heads every half an hour to begin with.
Or standing up if you can.
Then try doing it and imagining something slightly more challenging, or doing it for longer.
Keep repeating the process and gradually build up to moving more.
Research shows that 20 minutes of exercise significantly reduces the symptoms of depression, and inflammation in those affected by it.
By working towards this slowly and gently, you can begin to better meet your need for movement, to help both your mental and physical health.
Movement supports good mental health by lifting our mood and reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. but moving can also help us meet the emotional needs upon which good mental health depends.
For example, as we get into the habit of moving more, we may notice that we can breathe more easily, think more clearly and sleep better too.
These improvements, all help to make us feel safer about our health, so that our emotional need for security is better met.
Moving can also help us to feel more in control of our lives.
Gaining in fitness, strength or flexibility can give us a huge sense of control over our bodies.
But so, too, can choosing when we will do simple kinds of movement, which can give our day a better sense of structure.
So, if we are sitting at a desk for long periods of time, we might choose to stand up and stretch every hour. Or walk up and down a flight of stairs to lift our heart rate for a short time.
Going for a walk or a run alone gives us a great opportunity to meet the need for privacy, when we can reflect and process our thoughts.
Often, when we don’t have the chance to do this, we may take our concerns to bed with us, which can stop us going off to sleep.
If we are preoccupied with thoughts we have yet to process, we may also struggle to give attention to important areas of our lives, like friends and family, including partners and children.
The rhythm of moving can put us into a special state of attention which psychologists call flow. When we are in flow, and exercise is keeping our stress levels under control, we can reflect on the events of the day and any work or personal challenges we may be facing while feeling calm.
This helps us to let those events and concerns go so that we can better give attention to others at home, or to work tasks, and to sleep better too.
Sharing the experience of moving with other people can help us to meet our need for emotional connection. These shared experiences might include catching up on the week with friends we go for walks with; having fun with other people in a gym, yoga or martial arts class; playing in a team with others; or giving and receiving encouragement as we achieve goals to become fitter, stronger and healthier.
Feeling part of a group where we share the experience of overcoming challenges and other people acknowledge our progress, meets our needs for community and status too.
Stretching ourselves to overcome challenges is part of meeting the need for achievement.
So, if we are notice that we can walk further, run or swim further, feel a little stronger or find we can move more easily, or with greater flexibility, it can give us a great sense of achievement.
But even just noticing that we are moving a little more today than we did yesterday can help us to meet our need for achievement.
And taking that a stage further, by setting ourselves goals and taking small steps everyday towards them, we can meet our need for meaning and purpose too.
So, as well as meeting our need for movement, physical activity also helps us to meet the emotional needs and gives us a better chance of securing good mental health and wellbeing.