How exercise affects mental health.

Mental health is still a taboo subject. Mind UK (a mental health charity) report that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. Although the topic has been more public in discussion over recent years, the embarrassment of opening up still restricts conversation for a lot of people.

To delve into this subject a little deeper, I want to be honest about my own struggle with mental health. I have had serious bouts of depression in the past and more recently, I have come into contact with mild anxiety. I have known many others who have had this struggle too; I recently lost a young and bright family member to suicide. Mind UK have mentioned in their studies that even though mental health rates have not significantly changed in recent years, the way we seem cope with mental health issues has deteriorated.

When I was going through a rough patch of depression, I turned to exercise in quite a destructive way. I worked out for at least 2 hours a time, 6 days a week and punished my body. I was eating dangerously low calories during the week and binge eating on weekends. My self-image was at an all-time low, ultimately prolonging my recovery. I decided to seek counselling. The healing process was distressing and draining at first, but I soon realised that talking was a coping mechanism that worked well for me.

Fast forward a few years and despite still struggling with mental health, I discovered how to use exercise positively; help not hindrance. After discussions with other personal trainers and my own research, I started to treat my body with respect. That doesn’t mean I don’t work hard – love challenging workouts and have a passion for CrossFit. However, I do know that type of workout isn’t needed every day too. Working smart is much more effective.

Various studies have been completed on how exercise can have a positive effect on mental health, with exercise often now being recommended to aid and cope (I have linked a study by NCBI as an example). The NHS state that regular exercise can boost mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. There’s no doubt that it helps. Having said that, it’s just as important to select the right training too.

Training activates the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) putting your body in fight or flight response. This functions all the physical affects we associate with exercise, such as sweating, raised heart rate, increase breathing rate etc. Activating the SNS is definitely not a bad thing – but it should be balanced by ‘rest and digest’ or the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the polar opposite of the SNS, having the effects of relaxation, slowing of heart rate etc. It’s important for the body to come to homeostasis so that our body can function properly. As you may have linked from the effects of exercise. the SNS is also very active during anxiety and stress. Thus, adding extreme exercise, isn’t always the answer to feeling better.

I’m certainly no doctor or psychologist, however my job as a personal trainer is to help people and a surprising amount of clients just want to FEEL better. Mental health is of paramount importance to this. Exercise can be a vital tool in feeling positive; when you’re training effectively. Take a good approach, allow rest and recovery, start from a base level and get moving in different ways. Find training that you enjoy, and if you don’t know, speak to or hire a professional to help put you on the right path. One thing to remember is that every day does not have to be your maximum level. Yes, it is important to get sweaty and work at a high intensity, but not all the time. If you’ve had a very difficult day with your anxiety, some yoga or getting outside for a walk would be a fantastic alternative to the gym; healthy for your body and mind. Mental health can be a tough battle, and I hope if this is something that you struggle with, this article has provided some help. You’re not alone! Talk when you need to. It’s ok not to be ok.

Alix x


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