Depressed, Anxious and Overworked? Movement can help.

By Hilary Holmes MSN, RN, PMHNP-BC – July 2, 2019

We all know exercise is good for us, but like eating our vegetables and listening to our mothers, we just don’t always do it. Or perhaps it’s that we don’t have time.

At least that’s what studies have found; time and energy are the primary reasons most Americans avoid exercise. If we’re already exhausted and overworked, how can we possibly add exercise to our to-do list? Well, there may be another option: consider making small changes to create a lifestyle that includes more physical activity. The benefits of exercise are extensive, ranging from improving heart health to boosting cognition and mood; you might find the small changes make a big difference. Here are a few ways to invite more movement into your life.

Any Movement Counts

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week (think brisk walking five days a week for 30 minutes). But understand that for most of us, this is a goal, and not where we start. Take the first step by starting small. Walking as little as an hour per week can help. The Center for Green Psychiatry recommends mindfulness-based practices, like yoga. Mind-body practices offer an added benefit of physical movement and meditative awareness, which is great for reducing anxiety, improving attention and helping improve sleep.

Exercise with Friends

Commonly, when people experience depression, they tend to isolate. Withdrawing from social interactions can be one of the first signs of depression. Social isolation is a serious matter; it has even been found to be as deadly as smoking or excessive alcohol use. Push back against the tendency to isolate when you’re feeling low by exercising with friends and integrating movement with your social life. Joining a cycling group, finding a tennis partner or meeting new people at the basketball court are all great ways to make exercise more appealing and foster a sense of community. Incorporate exercise into the activities that you enjoy or want to try. Not only will you receive the benefits of social interaction, you also receive the mood boosting effects of the exercise itself.

Long-term Motivation

Exercise has many benefits, and for some that can include weight loss, muscle gain or changes in body appearance. This isn’t a long-term motivator for many people. Exercising as a means to lose weight is great, but research has shown that those who are intrinsically motivated are better able to stick with their exercise goals, than those who are extrinsically motivated. In other words, exercising to be able to run around with your grandchildren will probably keep you motivated for longer than exercising to get a “beach body” for summer.

Rest and Recovery

In the same way that you take care of your body by moving, take care of it by resting. Exercising too much can actually cause hormonal imbalances, injury, fatigue and impede muscle growth. If you mastered the AHA exercise guidelines above and feel ready to bump up the intensity of your routine, there’s great news: You can build muscle, maintain healthy hormonal balance and have more energy by watching Netflix, guilt-free, on your rest days. Try planning a certain number of workouts per week, but not necessarily selecting specific exercise days. This allows built in flexibility for rest and the unexpected. Work running late? Make that your rest day and be sure to leave on time the next day for your workout.

Lastly, the most important form of rest is sleep. Sleep is important for our physical and mental wellbeing. Lack of sleep leads to lower energy levels and just makes everything more difficult. Sleep gives us the energy to exercise and also helps our body heal.

Get Moving

If you feel you don’t have time to exercise, increase your level of movement in the activities you already do. Park your car at the back of the lot. Take the stairs. Dance while you vacuum. Stretch while you watch Netflix, or do sit-ups during commercial breaks. If you’re moving, you’re exercising.

Celebrate your accomplishments, step by step. Research shows that movement feels good. Exercise causes your brain to release communication chemicals called endorphins and repairing proteins called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Endorphins act on opioid receptors in the brain which is why they help mediate the physical discomfort of exercise and produce a feeling of euphoria. BDNF helps to protect and repair neurons (nerve cells that act as tiny lines of communication) in the brain. This leads to improved mood, memory and overall brain function. Start by incorporating movement into your routine in small ways. Over time you may notice that your energy and physical health have improved. You may even notice that you are feeling less depressed, more hopeful and sleeping better. Eventually you might find yourself enjoying regular exercise and seeing the benefits flow through all aspects of your life. So get moving!


*Hilary Holmes MSN, RN, PMHNP-BC is a wellness advocate and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner who helps patients overcome depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns at the Center for Green Psychiatry. Learn more at


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