An illustration of a brain is shown.
Brain health is closely tied to physical activity. The more your exercise, the greater the odds of improving your mood. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Ever feel like retreating to the comfort of your couch these days, preferably in the company of a king-sized candy bar?

You’re not alone.

It’s natural to seek sources of comfort when you’re feeling exhausted or overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the temporary relief you get from these “quick-fix” coping strategies—binge eating or binge drinking, for example—will quickly fizzle.

Even worse, some of these short-term strategies can lead to feeling even more sluggish, defeated and depressed.

Fortunately, you have within reach a variety of techniques to help stop those cycles of negativity, replacing them with positive habits that can have a mood-boosting impact in the long run.

Eating a healthy diet rich with fruits and vegetables, getting plenty of sleep and staying socially connected—as much as we possibly can—have a positive impact on mood.

But when it comes to warding off depression and negative feelings, physical activity remains perhaps the most powerful tool you have.

For some, in fact, exercise can be just as effective as a daily antidepressant.

If the notion of exercising evokes images of failed New Year’s resolutions and feelings of dread, here are some tips to make it a sustainable part of your everyday life.

Focus on the ‘why’

Most of us know—and have been told all too many times—the reasons we should exercise.

While “shoulding” yourself into an activity may work for a short period, those external motivators—a doctor’s orders, society pushing its standards—can also link an activity to feelings of shame or dread.

This understandably makes it harder to commit in the long run.

At day’s end, we’re driven by our desires, emotions and values. Harnessing these makes activities meaningful and sustained.

So focus on how exercise enhances what’s important to you.

Maybe it gives you energy to play with your kids. Or it boosts your mood so you have patience with your significant other. Or it gives you mental clarity at work.

Mindset is a powerful tool.

Rather than shoulding your way with shame, try to focus on the healthy reasons you want to get moving.

Preoccupy with process

Learn to see the process of exercise, not just the outcome. Then build reasonable goals from there.

How often has your motivation been tied to weight loss? “I just want to lose 20 pounds,” you say.

Think about what happened when you reached the goal. You might have felt less motivated to keep working out. Or if the scale didn’t budge fast enough, you felt frustrated.

Losing weight in a healthy, sustainable way takes time. And there are many factors outside your control—such as hormones and water retention—that can impact your weight loss.

To fight frustration, it can help to set goals based on controllable actions.

How often do you want to be active? How long? When you set clear process goals—work out three times a week for 15 minutes—you’re more likely to adhere to your program and feel a sense of accomplishment along the way.

Outcome-only goals, such as “lose weight,” aren’t as effective. So make your goals realistic, specific and achievable.

Avoid ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset

It’s the start of the New Year and you’ve got your new exercise gear. You’re on a mission. For two weeks, you push through daily, hour-long workouts.

Then life hits—extra work piles up, you get a flat tire, the baby keeps you up at night.

Now you can’t muster the time or energy for that hour-long workout.

Feelings of failure creep in. You skip sessions and tell yourself you’ll start anew Monday. Or next month. Maybe next year.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, many view exercise from an all-or-nothing lens. While this can help motivate behavior for a short time, it usually leads to frustration.

Want to change this? Try to recognize that something is better than nothing, and health benefits can come with even a modest amount of activity.

For example, research has found we can experience a mood boost within minutes of exercising. Depression symptoms can improve with 15 minutes of exercise three times a week.

If you can’t get in your expected workout today, be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to find other ways to get a small amount of activity that day—or start again tomorrow.

Make it enjoyable

When you think about exercise, what do you imagine? If it’s dread at the prospect of sweaty hours on the treadmill, it’s time to re-envision.

We’re more likely to stick to an activity if we find it enjoyable and rewarding—and exercise can take many forms.

Perhaps you’d rather dance in the kitchen with your kids or play a sport?

If you can’t think of a naturally fun option, try brainstorming ways to make it more enjoyable. For example, watch your favorite TV show while walking on a treadmill or listen to a podcast while out for a jog.

Get social

As human beings, we’re wired for social connection. It’s a powerful motivator for exercise, too.

When an activity has that social element, you may feel more willing to do it and stick to it.

Arranging social interactions isn’t always easy these days, so you might have to get creative. You could check into a virtual fitness class or arrange an informal Zoom workout with friends.

Online support and accountability groups can also be a fun way to check in with others and get new ideas when your routine feels stale.

Map it out

If exercise has been difficult for you in the past, take a realistic look at why that might be. Then create a plan to set yourself up for success.

The last time you planned an activity, what barriers complicated plans? A lack of time and confidence can often derail fitness. Exhaustion will, too.

If this sounds like you, try to problem solve. Find ways to work around barriers.

Enlist support from others and use time-management strategies. Find a workout app that demonstrates different exercises—things you can do at home. Break your activities into shorter bursts throughout the day.

The goal? Make exercise an enjoyable, sustainable, mood-boosting part of your life.