The Best Exercises for When You're Feeling Sad

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Feelings of sadness can quickly derail fitness goals, causing your workout motivation to dwindle. Even performing simple physical activities, such as making your bed and cooking a healthy breakfast, don’t fall high on your list of priorities when your heart and mind are out of sorts.

When you're in a low mood, prioritizing exercise can work to your advantage. Working out can help lift you out of sadness and cause your emotions to transform into something more upbeat.

According to a comprehensive study on exercise and mental health, researchers found that exercise could actually change the way your brain functions and decrease your depression and anxiety.

The following five exercises have a strong potential to boost your mood, increasing your motivation toward physical—and then mental—strength.

30 Minutes of Meditation + 30 Minutes of Walking

Spending approximately 60 minutes in a split session of meditation and cardio can significantly ease depression and ruminative thoughts, suggests a study from Translational Psychiatry. 

To follow the same approach researchers took with study participants, spend 20 minutes practicing sitting meditation. Then for the next 10 minutes, walk slowly and focus your attention on your feet as you transition from one foot to the other. This allows blood to flow to your extremities before you begin the aerobic portion of the workout.

After the meditation period and slow warmup, walk for 30 minutes, reaching 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate. (Researchers recommend a five-minute warm-up and cool down during this 30-minute cardio portion.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that you can estimate your heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. The result is your maximum age-related heart rate.

30-Minute Tai Chi Session

According to a peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a mindfulness physical activity like Tai Chi can offer optimal mental health changes—even more than higher impact workouts.

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art practiced throughout the world for its health benefits. The exercise follows a series of slow, gentle movements using a combination of breath, mind, and physical activity in hopes of attaining inner peace.

Tai Chi training programs vary because no official standards exist, but all practices are designed to strengthen your muscles and improve blood flow.

The National Health Service recommends starting a Tai Chi practice by watching a class or attending a free trial session before registering for a course. You can find local classes through community recreation programs, gyms, and private instructors.

A Series of Hatha Yoga Movements

The positive mental health effects of yoga are well documented. In a systematic review of yoga aimed at improving sadness and depressive symptoms, yoga, most commonly hatha yoga (a yoga type that teaches physical postures), was found successful in reducing feelings of depression.

The following five hatha yoga poses are helpful in combatting sadness, which you can perform in a series or on their own:

Child's Pose

Forward seated folds, such as the child's pose, can calm and bring a sense of peace to your body. The pose opens your torso and allows you to feel more connected to your breathing pattern. This is also a popular resting pose in almost all yoga practices.

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog serves as an inverted pose that can move pressure to your crown, which stabilizes your mood and emotions. (Inverted poses have the head below your heart.) For the uninitiated, remember to keep your weight in your legs and bend your knees if your hamstrings don't stretch out.

Bridge Pose

Chest expansion poses open your heart to make you feel happy and self-assured. In the bridge pose, you lie flat with your knees bent as you lift your hips up. This allows your chest to widen from its tucked-in position and creates better posture, constructing a sense of confidence in your mind and keeping feelings of sadness at bay.

Corpse Pose

The ultimate relaxation pose is the corpse pose, also known as the relaxation pose or Savasana. It is the final pose at the end of almost every yoga practice. You should spend five to 10 minutes lying in the pose for full benefits.

Headstand—An Advanced Move

The Sirsasana, or the headstand pose (for the more advanced yoga devotee), is an inversion that can assist in bucking depression by creating a positive effect on your emotional center and helping reduce the production of cortisol, known as the stress hormone.

The pose also energizes the body because it uses a number of body parts: your shoulders, head, hamstrings, spine, and core. The headstand also requires an overall balance ability throughout your entire body.

If a headstand is challenging for your current yoga level, you can modify the movement by practicing it against a wall or using a spotter to grab your feet and legs.

10-Minute Balance Routine

In a systematic review from the Journal of Happiness Studies on the relationship between exercise and happiness, researchers found that as little as 10 minutes of physical activity increased moods. In randomized controlled trials, researchers found that balance exercises were effective at achieving these elevated emotions.

Balance exercises that can provide optimal happiness gains include:

Walking Heel-to-Toe

You can begin this simple balance exercise by walking forward, heel-to-toe with a steady, neutral position, head held up, and eyes looking forward 10 to 12 feet, repeating five times. Similar to chest expansion poses in yoga, walking heel-to-toe opens up the heart and makes you aware of your posture for better confidence.

Toe Walks

Walking for 10 steps with your toes raised from the ground can help you train different leg muscles. You should repeat this exercise for a couple of minutes. If you have any strain in your feet, limit yourself to a few steps.

In a study on balance exercises, such as toe walking, researchers found that a balance training program strengthened self-efficacy and walking speed, but even better, participants found the exercises fun and enjoyable.

Sit-and-Stands

This exercise starts seated in a chair and without any assistance, you lift yourself up pushing through your feet to attain balance. This sit-and-stand movement engages your core, hips, and legs. You should repeat this 10 times.

Although this is an uncomplicated move, you will find neurological health benefits, according to published research. The act of standing keeps your brain engaged and focused on the movement; it also improves blood circulation and provides oxygen to the brain.

Straight Leg Raises

To begin a straight leg raise, keep your abs engaged and knees straight as you lift one leg up backward. You should work to keep your knee straight as your thigh comes off the floor. Hold your leg up for two seconds and then lower it down. You can do this exercise for 10 to 15 repetitions and then switch to the opposite leg.

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), adding balance exercises such as the straight leg raise can improve your overall energy expenditure and elevate your ability to perform what you love to do.

50-Minute Walk in Nature

A study on the health benefits of exercise and nature suggests head to the nearest green hills when you're feeling down.

Researchers measured changes in positive and negative affect, anxiety, and perceived stress among participants before and after the following: a 50-minute walk on a forest path, a 50-minute walk along a busy road, and a period of performing typical activities of daily living. Results showed that forest walks provided the largest improvement in psychological state.

To put your safety first in the forest, the CDC recommends:

  • Pick trails that are shaded or near streams during hot weather.
  • Carry water. In cold weather, you'll need to drink more.
  • Take a friend with you for safety in numbers (and the mental health benefits of friendship).
  • Use assistance. A hiking stick can take a little pressure off your legs and knees.

A Word from Verywell

For some, feelings of sadness can be fleeting. One day you're sad, the next day you feel okay. But this isn't the case for everyone. If you experience constant emotions of feeling down or chronic depression, consider contacting a health care professional for assistance. Seeking help can provide necessary resources and medical support; you don’t need to suffer alone.

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