The Workouts I Use In My Mental Health Toolkit


Pulling on my 2011 New York City Marathon long-sleeve shirt yesterday, I immediately started comparing 2018 Theodora to 2011 Theodora. “Why is it so hard for you to run like you used to? Where is your motivation?”

I’m getting better at stopping those negative thoughts in their tracks…sometimes.

As I recently talked about on Kayla’s podcast, I’ve shifted my fitness perspective over the past few years. It’s still just as important a part of my life (hi, I just got my NASM cert!), but man, is it serving a different function for me.

When I first started working out, it was entirely for vain reasons. I wanted to look good at my friend’s wedding in Aruba. I wanted to look good in a bridesmaid’s dress and a bikini.


Life was so, so much simpler then, though. I was twenty-six. I had just moved to Manhattan and started a new job, and my young life was full of possibility. And so I worked out hard and filled my diet with lean protein and vegetables to make up for the gluttony of my early 20s.

The more I ran, the more I improved my performance, eventually breaking four hours in the marathon.

But the year before that started my rollercoaster of mental health struggles — intense anxiety followed by depression, even before my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away.

Dealing with anxiety was my first brush with matching my workouts with my mental health/mood. I turned to yoga HARD. I left it all on the mat, several times a week, and I felt it chipping away at my anxiety, one asana at a time. The deep breathing, the turning focus inward all helped me deal with my problems a little better and remember the ephemerality of time.

But while my anxiety called for movement that would quiet my mind and slow down the racing of my heart, I learned that depression was a different beast.

Nope, Wellbutrin is the best anti-depressant I’ve ever taken.

As I struggled with motivation for anything almost two years ago, I was also about to start a marathon training cycle, and my energy levels were SHOT. Every run felt like a slog, when everything else about me was fine physically. At that time, depression had me by its claws for several months, but I never thought one had to do with the other. I ran straight up to the point of injury, and I had to take a break from running.

That’s when I learned to listen to what my mind and my body needed — and that sometimes (often times), my mind would win.

Still unwilling to give up on my marathon goals — that’s the year I somehow ran two in one season! — I switched to low-impact exercise only. I mostly swam and did Sculpt at Uplift, and I began to realize how soothing my workouts could be to both my mind and my body when I was feeling low-energy.

I was on an Orangetheory kick at the end of last year. The two times I’ve tried it have been immediately post-marathon, when I’m feeling a little squishy and want to lift more and focus on speed over distance.

This December, though, I was beginning to fall into the deep depression that would take over for this entire winter, and I just could. not. make. it. through. the classes. I found myself either leaving a bit early or dreading going in the first place because it felt too hard at the time.

“Well fuck Orangetheory,” my therapist said when I told her this. (With all due respect to Orangetheory.) “It will be there when you’re feeling better.”

I quit Orangetheory and began to truly be in tune with what my body might need as far as exercise — including no exercise — on a given day. Here’s what I learned worked for me:

Low/mid levels of anxiety — when I’m feeling sort of anxious and scattered, there is never anything better in the world for me than some intense cardio. I’m jittery and jumpy and feel like I have excess energy to burn, and I go to a treadmill class like Mile High or I take a spin class. Man, it’s times like these that I can just sweat it all out and feel a little better that really make me wonder what I did before I started working out.

High anxiety — there’s plenty of other things in my toolkit that I do when I’m feeling really high levels of anxiety (the kind where I feel like I’m always right on the verge of a panic attack), but the one thing I don’t do is run. My heart rate is already high, my cortisol levels are likely already high — and running will only spike both of these. At best, it won’t do anything for my anxiety levels (and I often will only get just a few blocks and just can’t), at worst, it makes me feel worse.

When I am feeling this anxious, there’s a few different kinds of workouts I’ll do:

Swimming: it is impossible for me to not be present when I’m counting my breaths and thinking about my form.

Lifting: do you want to drop a heavy weight on your foot? I don’t, and so lifting is an amazing way for me to channel my anxiety into counting reps and focusing on my form.

Yoga: even if I don’t walk out of yoga absolved of all of the anxiety I walked in with, I always walk out feeling at least a little better, and at the bare minimum, I’ve gotten out of my head for at least some part of an hour!

Working Out With Depression

This can be a really hard one. When I’m at the lowest of lows in my depression, it can be hard to even getting out of bed. Moving from the bed to the couch feels like a BFD. Work out?? LOL…

But of course, working out is good for depression — but you don’t really care about that when you’re in the thick of it all.

What’s worked for me:

A walk — sometimes that’s all the energy I have, and that’s fine. It still feels good to get outside and get some movement.

A really easy run — this absolutely always means intensity-wise. On a scale of 1-10 of perceived effort, I’m at no more than a 6. Time-wise, I consider it a miracle if I make it beyond three miles. This is just about getting out and getting moving, no more, no less.

Easy/restorative yoga — These slow flows and restorative poses are heaven when just dragging myself to a studio feels like hell.

Rest — sometimes a workout feels like it it will drain the very small bit of energy I have…and I give myself permission to rest.

What kind of workouts work for you when you’re feeling anxious or depressed? 

Please note: I am a certified personal trainer and run coach, but I am not a mental health professional — this is just what’s worked for me.

Some mental health resources:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (it’s important to note they also have online chat)

NYC Well Offers free, short-term counseling/peer support and assistance in finding other mental health services (also includes text/online chat)

Psychology Today Find a Therapist You can search by insurance, issues, modality of therapy (I’ve personally always done CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy because it’s very solutions-oriented, and, New Yorker here.)

Here’s amazing crowd-sourced Google Doc of therapists in NYC/Chicago/SF

And of course, you can always check through your health insurance, or many employers have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) to help you find/access the services.

3 comments on “The Workouts I Use In My Mental Health Toolkit

  1. Lemon

    This is sosososososososo important. Thank you for sharing! Hopefully the years it took you to figure this out will help others save that time. <3

  2. Anne

    Just saw this today and thought of you. Not that you should change what you do – but their findings on strength training for depressive symptoms may help explain why you see benefit from strength training when you are anxious.

    (The study was in JAMA Psychiatry; they link to it in the article from Time.)

    Take care – I just have to say that I always like seeing new posts from you.

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