Mental Health and Fitness

Being physically active is so beneficial to not only your physical health but also our overall well-being. It’s something that I have become more aware of and is being spoken about more widely over the past year. I have some very special people in my life who suffer with different forms of mental health issues and whilst I don’t personally, seeing how it affects them makes this something I am keen to understand better. I should note I am not a professional in this area and this post is not intended to offend in any way – something I am very conscious of with it being such a sensitive subject.

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My husband has spoken out the past couple of years about his own struggle with depression, stress and anxiety and so this hits home very close for us and this post was written with those people I mentioned above and includes quotes directly from them.  They all suffer from different forms of mental health issues and fitness and self-care are the main, non-medical, ways in which they help to keep this under control.  Here my husband speaks about this below:

Exercise, for me, is paramount to my overall well-being and without regular sessions I quickly become my own enemy. The daily struggles range from not wanting to get out of bed, talk to anyone, letting personal hygiene lapse to anything as bad as totally shutting myself off from the world for days on end.  I’m not saying this is the answer to a well-balanced mind and something that will get rid of the issues of depression, anxiety or stress but it does help.

I’m extremely lucky to have an amazing wife who took the time to research, understand and got to learn and know the signs of when I’m going into a bad place.  Exercise for me is the key and she is incredibly aware of this and encourages me to do any form to make me feel better and it works.

Having come to terms with the mental health issues I have was the first step I found to really understand and get better, recognising the signs of a re-lapse is paramount to remaining the best you can be.  Having these issues is not a weakness and honestly I think it is the complete opposite, strength within comes from those who know they need help and want to overcome their issues. My daily worries range anything from being body conscious,  doubting myself to not becoming ‘that friend’ who is down again.  I’m lucky to have a great group of friends who have been there for me in the low times as well as the great.

 I’m a very open to talk about my issues and feeling and a big advocate for others to do this as this is the only way the stigma is going to be broken.

 The help is there and I encourage those to seek out the answers they want to make them feel better.  

Mental health has in the past been something people tend not to talk about and is often a taboo subject, however, awareness appears to be on the up with more people talking honestly about different mental health conditions and how they cope with this. Mental health and fitness is often something that comes up time and time again as this is something people find helpful for their mental health and in helping to stop the stigma and overcome barriers that surround this subject.  This can only be a positive thing especially as 1 in 6 people suffer from a mental health illness.

Mental health conditions or diagnoses comes in all different shapes and sizes and I think this is the first misconception by many who haven’t had any such experiences, or know people who do.  All too often you hear comments such as “you look ok?” or “you don’t look depressed?” I want to ask what does mental health look like?  A very close friend of mine who is a mental health professional added this:

I guess I have always been someone who worries about things.  This could be anything from “What should I wear?” “Will I fit in?” “Should I eat this?” to, “am I doing a good job?” “Am I quick enough?”. 

Last year I started to have really bad panic attacks. It started one afternoon at work, out of the blue – or so I thought. Things had been unsettled in my workplace for a while and there were some big changes happening in my personal life. I didn’t put them together or think they could be some of the root of the problem at first. I didn’t like to think of myself as having weaknesses, which if I’m honest is how viewed this.  

I was so worried about what people at work would think if they knew I was having panic attacks, worried the view would be that I couldn’t cope or work to the best of my ability. 

Some key moments I remember is a close friend saying “I didn’t realise panic attacks were a thing for you” and a colleague stating “I never would have known, you were so together at work”. 

My partner noticed that I had stopped exercising regularly, and reflected that I was generally happier/more ‘me’ when I did. I’d been to my GP who gave me the option of medication and talking therapy. I had already found a counsellor online, as I didn’t feel I could wait for NHS services. This helped me hugely over the period of about a year.  

It was a real struggle but I made myself get back to exercising. It wasn’t regular,  or for very long, but it really did help me. I love swimming, and some days all I wanted was to be in the pool. I might only swim for 15-20minutes but it felt good. I started yoga and got back to running, sometimes alone and at others with friends. Some of the friends knew what I had been struggling with,  others didn’t.  It didn’t matter so much, it was being out in the fresh air and moving that was helping me. The social side was an added bonus to that, I love to chat! 

Over time I have really come to value exercise because of how it helps me. I still worry, I get low sometime,  I don’t want to do or see anyone, I don’t always exercise. When I do, it’s good. It doesn’t matter about intensity, length of exercise or what it is. I value it because it’s good for my Mental Health & general well-being. 

I will do my best not to judge myself on my performance, but the movement, according to what I need at the time.  After all, my life is for me, not other people.  

Fitness can have such a positive impact on not just your body but also your mind. It can help with stress relief, increase energy levels, reduce anxiety, increase confidence, self-esteem, help with sleep and provide an overall boost to mind and body.  A qualified personal trainer with exercise referral and client psychology quoted the below.

Exercise has massively helped and continues to help my mental health. The gym or the outdoors never judges you or makes you feel bad. When I’ve been at my lowest in the past getting out and exercising whether it’s in a gym or outside has really helped me and is the reason why I retrained and joined the fitness industry. Now whilst I’m maintaining my mental health I also get to help others improve theirs. You always hear about the endorphins that are released when you exercise but it doesn’t have to be that scientific, what about the social side of the gym, or the ‘you time’ away from life’s stressed and worries. No matter the duration of the workout!

An amazing man I met from OCR, Stuart Amory, recently completed his ‘Run of Gratitude‘ for Mind charity.  This run started from his house in South West London to his girlfriends house in Aberdeenshire, which meant Stuart covered approximately 50km per day for 17 days.  To quote Stuart the reason for the run ‘I am running to my girlfriend to show gratitude for what I have in life…legs that work, support from friends, family and some major companies.’ On Stuarts website you can see his blog posts as he recounts the run and his mental account of it here.

You can find a lot more information available on this subject from many different resources including:

  • mental health charity, Mind
  • Mental Health Foundation who explain the link between mental health and movement here and also have a publication to download on how to look after your mental health using exercise that you can find here
  • Rethink who provide help and support for those affected by mental illness
  • Heads Together a mental health initiative spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex
  • Calm (charity focusing on mental health in men) are also great resources
  • NHS have a large amount of resource with regards to mental health including a Moodzone discussing common problems, tips and advice and real stories

I would also recommend The Mental Health Podcast and to quote the two awesome ladies behind this ‘aims to break the stigma around mental health. Bethan and Laureen know a bit about mental health, they both live with mental illnesses. In one episode they discuss why we shouldn’t confuse a common condition with something that’s normal. ‘

You can read more from Bethan on her blog at A Pretty Place to Play, one of my favourite blogs to follow and refreshingly honest in her accounts of keeping both physically and mentally fit.

My biggest take away from being around people who are suffering with their mental health is that it is ok not to be ok.  According to the Mental Health Foundation 1 in 6 adults experience a mental health problem and 1 in 5 adults have considered taking their own life at some point due to the daily struggles they live with and so it is important to break the stigma and talk about it.

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