For the past month and a half, I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for the first time in years. I’m talking at least 4 times a week, sometimes up to 6 times. I haven’t done yoga with any regularity since 2013 or 2014, so you can see why this is huge for me.
It’s also a big deal because of my struggles with mental illness. When things are bad, they affect all areas of my life. Certain symptoms affect my ability to exercise–depression, low energy, feeling burnt out, obsessing over perfectionism, low self-esteem, lacking mental clarity, or feeling numb. It’s hard to want to do anything when you feel like this, much less a physically strenuous activity.
It feels like fighting a mental illness is a workout of its own.
Exercise has so many benefits, physically and mentally. That’s why I wanted to find a loophole for my bad mental health days (or years) and find a way to get back into it. Don’t do it because it’s a substitute for medication though; do it because it’s a supplement to an overall treatment plan.
Here are my tips for getting into exercise–and making it stick–despite your mental illness:
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your muscles
In other words: take it one day at a time. Don’t worry about any other workout except the one you’re about to do today.
In the past few years, I’ve self-destructed quite majorly when starting an exercise routine. One of the biggest obstacles was thinking of the end goal too much. It psyched me out. I would think of how many days I needed to go to see results. I obsessed over my progress and if I was doing too little, or if I needed to push myself more.
I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a huge mountain that I couldn’t see the top of. All I could think of was how painful and tedious the journey would be. I didn’t stop to think about how beautiful each step could be.
It’s ironic how we want so badly to be this ideal version of ourselves, but we don’t want to put in the work to get there.
I’ve been back into yoga for the past 6 weeks or so. It isn’t much in the grand scheme of things–but it’s more than zero. One day will feel so small if you compare it to a year. So don’t compare it to year. Let your goal be this: doing more than zero days. And do that every day.
Don’t Self-Destruct if You Miss a Day
I’m guilty of this. If I screw something up, I want to quit. I think it’s pointless to continue with exercise or healthy eating if I have one or two bad days. But it’s going to happen! You’ll get sick, you’ll have something big come up that takes up your free time, you’ll be tired and skip a day just because.
And that’s okay!
Skipping a few days of workouts won’t undo your progress. Forgive yourself. Show yourself kindness. Think of how you’d treat someone else who felt bad about missing a few days in a row. Guilt eats us up and destroys the good things we’ve built. Don’t give it the satisfaction.
It’s Substance Over Style, Not the Other Way Around
I don’t have a yoga mat, or those fancy yoga blocks. I wear pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, sometimes an old tank top. I don’t look the part of the glamorous yoga teachers that I follow online. Typically, I’d let something like that set me back. I don’t have the proper equipment, gear, setup, or workout space.
I let the pursuit of perfection destroy me, but not this time. I decided I wasn’t going to let lame excuses like not having the right leggings derail me. The main reason I keep going back to yoga, besides the fact that it’s kind to my joints and is a versatile workout, is that it requires nothing! Yeah, they all have mats and a real yoga class will have mats, but you don’t actually need one to follow along.
Don’t let lack of gym membership, weights, or “proper clothing” stop you. There’s a workout for whatever you have (or don’t)!
Focus on a Being Stronger or More Flexible, NOT Losing Weight
Another discouraging thing that’s kept me away from regular exercise for the past four years is how damn hard it is to lose weight. Every time I got big into fitness and exercise in the past, it was because of wanting to lose weight. This always discouraged me because of what I talked about previously–looking too far ahead to the end goal and getting discouraged by how long it’ll take.
This time around, I take it one day at a time, but I also stopped making weight loss my goal. I told myself I wanted to be stronger and more flexible. I wanted other benefits of working out, like the rush of endorphins, better heart health, and better sleep. I wanted an improved mental health and an overall healthier body, inside and out. Not just weight loss.
Once I took the focus off weight loss, measuring progress became easier because I wasn’t comparing numbers on a scale or my waist line. It’s so much more motivating!
I notice when I’m in a particular yoga flow if I feel a little more fluid in my movements, or if I can hold a pose for longer, or if I can balance myself better. It feels like a little victory to see this kind of progress. You can measure your improvements in a more precise way than if you were to monitor weight loss. It happens so much faster, too! I seriously saw results like this in a week of yoga routines. It’s super empowering and encourages me to keep going.
More on the mental health side of things
You’re going to have your bad days. Mental cloudiness, feeling a heaviness in your spirit, or just straight up depressed. It’ll feel like it won’t matter to do exercise. It’ll feel like nothing matters. You’ll need to just get by with the bare minimum of surviving and start over tomorrow.
Take those days, or weeks, when you need them. You’re not going to overpower the actual chemicals in your brain because you do an excellent Warrior II now.
Self-care is such a buzzword at this point that it’s practically meaningless, but it means to take care of yourself. If you need to not work out to take care of yourself, do it.
I encourage you not to give up though. What I’ve learned about my feelings and when I don’t want to do something is that I can’t always be trusted! Feelings aren’t facts. They’re valid, and they can tell us important things, but they don’t last forever and it doesn’t always signal the end of the world. I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t always know what’s best for me. I trust the science and the benefits behind working out though. I know I feel better when I do it. So if it’s just a regular, crappy day where I want to wallow in negativity or just laze around, yeah, I push myself to do yoga! And I feel better because of it, at least physically.
There’s a balance here. Life is about balance. Yoga, in part, is about balance.
I’m not going to push myself on a super bad mental health day just because I think yoga will cure me. It won’t. On bad mental health days, it will become counter-productive and there will be better things you can do to take care of your mental health.
I’ve learned how to tell the difference, and thus, how to know when to push myself and when to surrender.
Learn to listen to yourself enough to know when you need to ignore yourself.
7 thoughts on “Exercising When You Have a Mental Illness”
Thank You Jessica. I have been home recently on Disability from multiple health issues. I suffer from COPD, I have a stent in my lower descending artery (from coronary artery disease), and from all this, I suffer from depression. Currently, I am recovering from Double Pneumonia. I am trying to walk every day, a little more every day, but there are days I just don’t feel up to it. I have never tried yoga and you have just enticed me to start. I even have the mat! Lol. I will remember this post anytime I feel like just sitting the day out…
Wow I’m sorry to hear about all your health issues. I can’t even imagine. Any little bit of exercise helps! Walking is certainly good for you, too. I enjoy doing that when I can. It’s such a good low impact exercise.
Great post! Honestly, I find that exercising is the best way to pull myself out of my worst days – Okay, puppy cuddles first and THEN exercise… Getting moving will allow your mind to release ‘feel good’ hormones. They won’t ‘cure’ your funk per say, but they will definitely help as a bandaid solution while you figure out how to manage your emotions moving forward.
Sorry it took me so long to reply to this! Puppy cuddles and THEN exercise is a great way to pull yourself out of a rut. Getting those feel good hormones out is so essential. Thanks for the comment!