Depression, Serotonin and Exercise: Getting Your Motivation Back

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Hi Everyone,

I have been thinking a lot about motivation lately. I have been having a hard time getting motivated for my workouts. If you have been following my blog you probably know how crazy and out of character that is for me. 

I love working out. I love sharing my workouts on my blog, and hearing about the progress of those of you who follow my workouts. This is my passion, and my hobby. So where has my motivation gone? 

The first step to getting your motivation back is pinpointing the cause of de-motivation. 

1. Exhaustion: If you are not getting enough sleep your body may be lacking the energy required to workout, or engage in other activities that you normally enjoy. 

2. Feeling Over Whelmed: Have you ever had so many obligations at one time that you feel pulled in multiple directions? Eventually you may start to feel that you aren’t as successful as you would like to be at any one endeavor, because you are spread to thin. There isn’t enough of you to go around. 

3. Stress:  This can be caused by a variety of things. Change, both good and bad, can be stressful. Major life events (birth of a child, marriage, job change, move, graduation, etc) can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and cortisol levels. 

4. Lack of Enjoyment/Reward: Perhaps you aren’t motivated because you just don’t enjoy the task at hand. Instant gratification is short lived, but it can be very tempting, even if it is at the cost of long term goals. 

5. Depression: There are several types of depression. Some depression starts in response to a specific event or experience, and other types of depression seemingly appear out of no where. Many studies have linked depression to decreased functioning of serotonin receivers in the brain, reduction in chemical reactions which allow serotonin transport in the brain, or decreased serotonin production in the brain. 

Once you have identified the cause of your decrease in motivation you can take steps to rectify it. 

Sleep is the easiest cure. Sometimes you just need to take a day off and let your body rest. When I don’t get enough sleep I get a double whammy: I don’t want to workout, and I crave high calorie foods that I normally don’t even like! Studies have shown that getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night leads to an average increase in caloric intake of 360 calories per day. 

If you are overwhelmed it may be beneficial to prioritize. Try to decrease the number of obligations you have, or the amount of time spent on less important obligations. Remember, your mental and physical health need to be on your priority list. Without these two things the rest of your to-do list is going to suffer. 

Stress is a part of life. Sometimes you need to recognize what is causing you stress, and find ways to cope. Some things you can’t control, but you can control your reaction to stress, and how much time/energy you dedicate to it. For example, if you get road rage and someone cuts you off you may find yourself still angry about it long after the offending driver is gone. If you’re still upset it may help to take a minute and realize you are giving them more time and power out of your life than they deserve. Your anger does not affect them in any way, but it’s still affecting your life and mood. Are they worth it? 

Lack of Reward. Instant gratification vs. long term results. Sometimes vegging out on the couch sounds more satisfying (and easier!) than a hard workout. Or perhaps that piece of cake looks better than a nutritious and healthy meal. Sometimes having long term goals is disheartening because it takes a long time to get there. This is why I am big on celebrating all of your victories along the way! Is your goal to run a 5K? Maybe you can’t run more than 2 blocks without walking. Celebrate and give yourself credit the first time you run 3 blocks! Is your goal to go from a size 18 to 12? Don’t beat yourself up because you are only down to a size 16, that’s progress! A new outfit can be a great motivator. 

Depression: This can be the hardest one to deal with. Sometimes depression can be a cumulative effect of all the things listed above. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. If you find that you are having suicidal thoughts it’s time to see a doctor. Exercise and nutrition have been shown to decrease depression, but sometimes you also need additional intervention. 

So what has been the cause of my lack of motivation? It’s a combination of many things. 
1. I have been tired. Staying up to late, and getting up early. My body requires sleep and I wasn’t listening. 
2. At times I have a tendency to take on to many projects. I don’t believe in limitations, which means I want to do a little bit of everything! Normally this is okay, but with my increased tiredness I felt that I wasn’t giving all of my projects my full effort. I want to do things successfully. Set a goal, achieve it, set a new goal. The last two months have been very busy and I felt like I was “fitting in” the things that are important to me. Things that I love seemed to fall by the wayside of obligations. 
3. Stress. Remember, even positive changes create stress. I switched jobs, my sister got married and is now having a baby, and Jesse and I are house hunting. I thought house hunting would be fun. Turns out not so much! We found a house that we loved, and it didn’t work out. I’m still not over the disappointment. 
4. Normally I find exercise intrinsically motivating. I love how it makes me feel. 
5. Depression. I found myself feeling moody, down, and negative. Plus, I was angry at myself for feeling that way because it is so out of character for me. Jesse was doing everything he could to cheer me up and it wasn’t working, so I also felt guilty for bringing down his mood. 

End result: me lying in my bed with the lights off and curtains drawn, moping and feeling sorry for myself. I started to think about two things. First, that I was making a choice to lay there and pout. If that was my choice I had to accept the responsibility for walking in that room and deciding to be stagnant and doing nothing to change the situation. Second, I thought about neuroscience and chemical reactions in the brain (yes I am a nerd, and honestly I like it that way). Science has shown that exercise increases the amount of serotonin in your body. My normal amount of exercise has been significantly decreased lately. Could this have created a “deficit” of serotonin in my body, as compared to what I have become accustomed to? Could part of my moodiness be a chemical reaction that I was feeding through inactivity? 

Decision time: Lay in the dark or do a workout? My body felt heavy and exhausted, walking upstairs to my room had felt like maximum effort so working out didn’t sound good. I decided to go for a run. I gave myself permission to go as slowly as I wanted, or even take walking breaks if I needed to. 

End Result: I strapped on my i-pod, stepped outside, and started to run. I found myself thinking “Today running is my therapy.” I went at a pace that felt good to my body. I tried to combine running and yoga and exist in the moment. When my watch beeped to indicate my first mile was done I glanced down and was surprised to see that I had done it in 7 minutes and 41 seconds. Slower than race pace, but faster than my normal running days. Mile 2 of my loop is almost all uphill so again I focused on the physical feeling of running. My second mile was 9:19. For the third mile I found myself thinking about how comfortable this run felt, I was putting in some effort but not giving 100%. I clicked off mile 3 in 7:26. I glanced down again at the 5K point and saw that I did an “accidental 5K” in 25:15. I still had half a mile to get home, but I took a moment to think about how fast my body must actually move during a 5K, and I wondered when this became a comfortable pace for me. 

I walked into the house and Jesse asked me how I felt. I had finished my 3.6 mile run in 28:52. I felt strong, I felt healthy, and I felt grateful for what my body was capable of. Even if I had completed this run 10 minutes slower I think I would have felt grateful that my determination and will power were strong enough to get me moving when I felt like moping. I was faced with a decision, and I chose action. Suddenly I felt like myself again.  

I am heading out for a trail run with Jesse, and there will be a new workout posted tonight. Let’s keep motivating each other! I would love to hear what you do to get motivated. 


16 thoughts on “Depression, Serotonin and Exercise: Getting Your Motivation Back

  1. Anonymous

    oh god I needed that 🙂 I have been put on sick leave for stress… I told the Doctor my stress release was doing your workouts at 6am 😉 but as you say, stress, sleep, all of the above takes a toll. I am liking your saying : decision time: Lay in the dark or do a workout? I will run tomorrow and re-introduce my favourite of your workouts this week. No excuse, I actually have time on doctors orders 🙂 thanks again for finding your mojo, it gives me mojo 😉

  2. Alina

    On a daily basis I motivate myself by how good I feel afterwards (serotonin of physical activity + feeling of accomplishment). If I really don’t want to train I promise myself just to do a warm-up, and if I don’t want to do workout then, I won’t. And, of course, visit your blog! 🙂
    Now I’m having exam session at the university. It’s really hard time, when my schedule is: wake up – breakfast – study – lunch – study – dinner – study – sleep. That’s when I really need to workout to full my brain (which is close to explosion) with oxygen, glucose and, still, serotonin, even if it seems I have no time for it.
    That is a really touching and motivating post, Melissa. Thank you so much!

  3. Hi dear Melissa. I read everything.

    I think you are a great source of inspiration for me and thousands of people around the world. This, of course, can’t stop you to have real life problems, and feel bad or depressed when having to deal with them. You are our Super Girl, but you still are a human being. And I believe this kind of temporary situation is good to give us more self knowledge, and wisdom. After all this bad times, you had the ability to think rationaly about everything, and realize the truth, that feel depressed or not, strong or not, confident or not is just a matter of choice. And to overcome a situation like this is just a matter of giving the first step, like you did on your running.

    And, believe me, and I’m very proud of you. Be strong is not just a matter of doing workouts and having big muscles, but it’s a matter of having a good spiritual and mental health. And being able of recover yourself from all the problems you have facing is a great proof of your real strenght 🙂

    So, please keep taking care of yourself, don’t overtrain, keep your rests properly, be happy, and have fun in your life. Don’t be so hard with yourself… I love you and your workouts, but the most important thing is that if you are feeling happy or not with this. You are the most important person in your life, so, please yourself. If you are really happy with your life, this will reflect in all aspects. And will benefit everybody around you.

    Have a great week, my dear. Take care!

  4. a characteristic of greatness is to identify one’s weaknesses… you didnt let your weakness overcome you… you identified it, and remedied it. Kudos to you, and thanks for showing your not-so-perfect moments, it helps us relate even more to you. You lead by example and i cant complain about wanting to skip a workout if you are pushing through and getting it done! Great JOB!

  5. Hi Melissa.
    I just wanted to write a quick message to say thank you for all that you do for us. As a 32 year old not sure quite how to get into the routine if exercise and healthy eating I have found you a huge inspiration since I saw you on fb. Following your blog and routines has been fantastic but one thing that stops me in my tracks some weeks is my depression and anxiety. It quite literally comes from nowhere and like you say the smallest of tasks can feel like a marathon. The strangest feeling is the sudden feeling of feeling so alone when it happens even though you can have all that love around you. So it was very interesting to read your post and just wanted to say I hope your back on form soon and to take good care. Sorry you didn’t get your a big believer things happen for a reason so i hope something even more perfect will come your way!
    Thankyou again for all the inspiration you pass our way and I look forward to carrying on following your blog and messages.
    Jacky, Suffolk, UK x x

  6. Anonymous

    Such a great post- I have been stuck in a rut after an injury knocked me out of a consistent exercise routine. I am a therapist, and your information is spot on and helpful I have to say I feel better hearing that someone so active and hard-working in their fitness also has moments where motivation to get that exercise in is lacking. This post was a much needed reminder and perspective I think I needed-I appreciate it!

  7. Anonymous

    Hi Melissa,

    I am so sorry you are going through a rough time. I have been there too in the last couple of months as I was suffering from depression. Exercise is my therapy too. Sometimes I do not want to work out, but I know that I will feel better if I do. I am a nerd too so I really know how to deal with moods and hormonal changes. Please do not give up, you can go through this tough time and we are here to support you.


  8. Melissa,

    I want to give you a hug! You are my inspiration. You motivate me. My 3 year old says “hi Melissa ” everytime he hears you say “hi everyone, I’m Melissa Bender and this my workout of the day”. “momy workout? ” he already knows. You know better than anybody that you must listen to your body. You can’t multiply yourself. It’s okay to say no when someone asks you to take on another project. You are human woman! So stay strong and follow you pace.
    I absolutely love love love your workouts 🙂

  9. I’m still in the Honeymoon stage of working out. Only a few months ago I found you on fb, and I’m totally inspired & motivated for the first time in yrs! Only set back I’m dealing with is my knee injury. Three weeks into it, and I have not given up doing workouts. I’m limited, but I refuse to stop. My concern is what if it doesn’t heal & I need surgery again, I would surely be depressed. I’m going to think positive and hope for the best.
    Thank you for sharing your story. So many people rely on medication for their problems instead of dealing with them head on. Exercise is the best medicine! Stay strong & hang in there. I also believe everything happens for a reason. Good luck house hunting.
    I big thank you for all you do to keep us motivated!!!

  10. Sorry to hear you’ve been feeling this way Melissa. I have been on my fitness journey for a little over a year now and you have been a huge inspiration to me since discovering your videos. You have such a warm, inclusive personality and you inspire me to push myself and look after my body.

    I sometimes struggle with motivation because I have a history of disordered eating and anxiety related to my body image. Sometimes, if I’m not making the progress I’d like to be, I feel those old feelings starting to rise again and I’ll think what’s the point? Why am I bothering? I’m failing and I suck at this, I’m inadequate, I need to eat less and work harder. It’s tough, but I’m gradually learning to pull through it. What motivates me is the desire to be kind to myself and treat my body the way it deserves to be treated. And I won’t give up, because you haven’t failed until you stop trying.

  11. Anonymous

    Hi Melissa,
    I cant even remember how I found your blog- but I check it everyday for updated workouts! You are incredible! You push me to push myself and you are so positive and exuberant! I have been feeling the same way as you for the past few days and haven’t been able to workout either. I started to do shorter workouts and more toning instead of pushing myself to do an entire “Insanity” workout! Last night, I read your blog.. and it was so inspiring. It motivated me to do the 1st day of insanity- it was tough.. but I DID IT! Thanks for sharing your workouts with us- and for being who you are!

  12. Suzanne A.

    Here we are…June 22, 2015, a couple of years past your original post, but I am so glad that you shared some personal speed bumps. It still resonates and does what it was supposed to do- it lifted others up and myself as well, even on this later date. I was on a great steady pace toward my goals when I slowed to a crawl, my motivation stalling and feeling fatigued. After some assessing with doctors, I found out that my endometriosis is back despite the surgery I had a couple of years back and definitely contributed to how I was feeling. I have gained twenty of the fifty pounds back and am struggling to get it off, but I have never stopped the working out entirely- still go at it 3-4 times a week minimum. I have just started a lower carb lifestyle, and that seems to be helping. I am going on too long, but really just wanted to find a way to say thank you kiddo! No matter what you end up doing, you have already made a difference in a big way. Thanks girl!

    • benderfitness

      Thank you! I am so glad that it helped. 🙂 I hope that you feel better soon. It’s wonderful that you are continuing to make positive health choices. There are aspects of our health that we can’t control, but when we stick with our workouts and healthy eating we are able to make an impact.

  13. Sometimes you just need a good run to remember that you are wonderful and strong! The body shows you what you mind temporary forgot…in one run I get my motivation back again…and like you I go for an easier/slower run…even if I don’t feel like it…I NEVER regret it and feel like a super hero afterward! Stephanie

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