Habits to help beat depression

I’ve given many sessions over the years on mental health and wellbeing; it’s part of the courses I teach to Personal Trainers and I’m often asked to talk on the topic in workplaces too. I’ve written articles on it and done numerous pieces on social media, and in all of them, I’ve always argued that the statistic that 1 in 4 of us suffer mental health issues is just plain wrong. It’s undeniably 4 in 4; we all face challenges at some point or another, we don’t have or not have mental health problems, they simply slide up and down a scale. Sometimes we cope with them comfortably, at other times it’s harder.

In recent times, I’ve experienced what it’s like to be much further along that scale, challenged to the point that on some days it has gotten the better of me and I’ve felt unable to defeat it. Other days haven’t been so bad, and some have started well and got harder or started badly and become easier. I guess that’s the thing about it; the scale can move constantly.

What I have had to do though is to use my resources, the knowledge I have about things that might just help me move to a better place on the scale and bit by bit, I’ve found myself moving in the right direction again, back towards a better balance. Here are some of those things that have worked for me…

1) Do something small

One of the most powerful things about depression is its ability to leave you feeling flat, paralysed, unable to do anything. Even the most mundane of tasks can seem like a challenge and you can experience whole days unable to get anything done.

At this point, setting big, challenging goals might not be the best idea as they’ll often take sustained effort and it’s easy to lose motivation along the way, even when you manage to have a good day or even a good few days. Try instead using micro-goals, tiny stepping stone challenges you can set yourself to provide a sense of achievement. The great thing about achieving things, however small, is that your brain recognises it and fires off pleasure-giving chemicals as a reward. That’s why when people make lists, they put things on they’ve already done so they can tick them off straight away and get the feel-good factor response!

This reminded me of the ‘making your bed’ speech from the US Navy Admiral that went viral in recent times. His point is very clear, start small and take it one step at a time. If you have five minutes and you’ve never seen it, I’ve included it below for you. It’s well worth a watch.

2) Move

For people with mild to moderate depression the NHS says that exercise is known to have definite benefits. Studies suggest that the benefits, in particular of cardiovascular exercise, are comparable to medications or talking therapies. Depression often goes hand in hand with fatigue, but by using low-to moderate intensity exercise that you enjoy, you can actually increase your energy levels. Strange isn’t it? You’d assume that if you’re tired, exercise would only exacerbate this, but as long as it’s kept to a sensible level, it has the opposite effect.

There’s no need to worry about exactly what to do or how much to begin with, just pick something; it could be walking, dancing, jogging, swimming, yoga, weightlifting, gardening or anything else you enjoy. Aim to gradually build to up towards the 150-minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise recommended (if you work harder, every minute done counts double towards this target).

3) Even better, move outside

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  • Two thirds of volunteers for the Wildlife Trust, given tasks like helping to dig ditches or make bird tables, reported improved mental wellbeing within six weeks

  • A Norwegian study of 30,000 participants found that just 1-2 hours movement outdoors each week could prevent depression

  • In one study of those with depression, a short outdoor walk fared much better than an indoor session on an exercise bike, with participants larger reductions in depression and fatigue

  • Exercising in green spaces has been shown to reduce the perceived difficulty of the exercise, increase people’s perception of their own health, leads to lower blood pressure after the workout when compared to exercise in urban environments, and also decrease stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol post-session too.

  • Some studies have shown increased rates of depression in the darker months of the year and shown strong correlations between vitamin D levels and the ability to predict episodes of depression. Exposure to sunlight also affects hormone levels, your body’s ability to utilise energy stores, cell function, blood flow and your body clock, all of which can impact energy levels and mood

  • Streams, rivers, lakes and the sea can also boost your mood. A study in Hong Kong showed that people who spent more time by natural water reported greater wellbeing and had a lower risk of depression. A review of studies into the subject identified 35 others that backed up these findings, consistently showing positive mental health and stress-reducing effects

Basically, my point is, get outside into natural light where there are trees, plants and water. Your body, and your mind love it!

4) Spend time with friends

When you’re feeling low, it’s common to withdraw. A 2012 study of 100 adults found that 20% had no contact with friends, 33% never interacted with their neighbours, 35% lived alone and 50% never attended social groups. The study supported these people to become more socially active through things like going to see a film, a play, a concert, visiting museums or simply going out for a coffee or a bite to eat. ALL of the 100 participants reported feeling better about themselves, having more confidence and experiencing less symptoms of depression.

People are ok, most of them anyway! ;-)

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5) Choose healthier food and drinks whenever you can

A wide range of foods and drinks have been linked to depression, for better and worse. Things that might be helpful to increase include:

  • Plant foods - fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, herbs and spices (aim for your 5-a-day)

  • Nuts/seeds - 1-2 handfuls per day

  • Oily fish - 1-2 portions per week

  • Wholegrains like unrefined rice and other grains, and lean proteins like chicken, turkey, eggs, yoghurt and soya produce - make these a staple part of most meals.

Minimise the more processed foods although there’s never a need to cut these out completely, it’s all about balance remember.


There are a range of habits that can help prevent or improve symptoms of depression. You can take actions that over time can lead you to a better place. Start small, remember that progress isn’t always linear, sometimes we have better days, sometimes worse, but that just the feeling of doing something can in itself boost your sense of confidence , mood and self-worth.