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5 ways to find the motivation to exercise on dark winter days

Can't seem to pry yourself from the cozy couch? Here are some easy ways to get moving again.
Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in our brain, which can help stop the cycle of negative emotions we experience this time of year.
Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in our brain, which can help stop the cycle of negative emotions we experience this time of year.TODAY illustration / Getty Images

It’s the time of year when we normally throw ourselves into a new exercise regimen and hit the gym. It’s also a dark winter, literally and figuratively, as we continue living through a pandemic and its fallout. The new-year drive to get moving can easily be defeated by the acedia (yes, we have a word for this feeling!) borne of grief, fear, relentless bad news, bitter cold and dreary days giving way to early dark nights.

When even getting dressed seems pointless it can be a struggle to muster the motivation to exercise, Erika Mundinger, a Minneapolis-based orthopedic clinical specialist and physical therapist, told TODAY. But ironically, it’s one thing that can help us feel dramatically better.

Midway through a quarantine at home while my husband recovers from COVID-19, I was firmly in the Netflix-and-couch cycle when I talked with Mundinger. As much for myself as for readers, I wanted to know how to get up and get going. Mundinger, who recovered from an earlier bout with COVID-19 herself, understood firsthand, and shared some real world know-how and advice that had me ready to move.

This is your brain on the couch

Working out can feel like a big leap from that comfy couch. Depression, seasonal affective disorder and COVID-19 itself can make staying curled up in a blanket oh-so-enticing.

But if we’re just sitting — working on the computer at home all day and watching TV by night — especially if we’re quarantined and not interacting with people, our brain chemistry is affected.

“We're not getting serotonin and dopamine and oxytocin through our brain tissue, so it's kind of like blowing our emotional reward endorphin system,” she said. “Plus we all have fear and anxiety and depression, and just fogginess and uncertainty and anger and things going on. And so because we don't have a mental simulation, when we get all of these negative feelings they just get stuck in a cycle ... because there's nothing to push it out.”

But when we exercise, Mundinger said, it helps push that serotonin and dopamine and oxytocin into our brain, which can “get that needle off that broken record.” Once we’ve broken that negative thought pattern it can help us think a little bit more clearly, she said.

And it doesn’t have to be a marathon workout.

Get on the floor

We can reap the benefits of movement with something as low-key as some floor stretches, she said. If you don’t feel like getting up from your horizontal position, “you get to lay on the floor and just move your knees side to side, that’s not so bad,” she said. Easy floor stretches — like supine and side twists, pelvic tilts, knee to chest and child’s pose — can offer not only a release of those hormones we need to feel good, but they help move “that sludgy lymphatic fluid” out, she said. Even in healthy people, relieving lymphatic stagnation is vital when it comes to a healthy immunity, which is key in helping us fend off pathogens like the coronavirus.

Go play

Do you feel like exercising outdoors in January? Maybe not. But why not build a snowman? Mundinger said. Or go sledding. Or ice skating. “Maybe it's not like going out doing a circuit workout,” she said, “but it is moving your body and you are getting your heart rate up and you're doing something with laughter.” We’re craving laughter right now, she said, so these childlike activities can make us feel good in more ways than one.

No snow? Depending on restrictions in your state, try a distanced backyard softball game, she said, or glow in the dark Frisbee, just anything that’s fun.

Bribe yourself

While conventional wisdom would tell us not to use food as a reward, these are not conventional times. Mundinger herself uses snacks to lure her on a walk to the store a mile away.

Right now, “we can give ourselves a little bit of leeway,” she said. “I think it's actually okay to use food as a reward.” Now that’s not to say give yourself a pass on months of ordering pizza and lying on the couch. But if the occasional "carrot on a stick" gets you on a walk, and you’re making wise food choices most of the time, that’s OK, she said.

Make it a social event

Seeing a friend on a masked and distanced walk can be another reward that gets us moving, Mundinger said. If that’s not an option, grab your phone and call or video chat someone along the way. Even listening to a favorite podcast can be an incentive.

Or see your friends online. Mundinger is a fan of the Zoom group-fitness class. The live, interactive sessions — which you can find in anything from yoga to HIIT — bring more accountability and a sense of connection that’s so important right now, she said. It doesn’t even have to be IRL friends; I felt connected with thousands across the globe thanks to Ryan Heffington’s Instagram dance parties early in the pandemic, and once joined a wine and yoga happy hour that was the perfect punctuation to a cooped-up day.

‘Nothing happens until something moves’

If you don’t know where to start, Mundinger said, just take a walk. That takes no equipment, it’s enough movement to reap the feel-good benefits, and it may spark more ideas if you see a new walking path or a playground or a distanced group yoga class at the park. “There's an Einstein quote that ... applies to everything,” she said. “Nothing happens until something moves.” So if a workout feels like too much, get up and do a lap around the house. Tomorrow it may be a walk around the block, then two. The key, she said, is to start.