Exercise and mental health…

Yesterday, some research was published that is the first large-scale (1.2 million people involved) study into the relationship between exercise and mental health. Now, because I’m a Personal Trainer, because my dad killed himself and because I spend a lot of time talking about how much I love exercise, I was asked to go on a couple of radio shows, which I was really happy to do.

I wanted to write a little blog about my thoughts and feelings on the report itself and the general benefits of exercise to mental health. Here’s a bit of a warning to you – it’s unlikely to be the hilarious, stitch-inducing comedy genius of all the other blogs I never write…

First of all, the title of the report is ‘Exercise and mental health: a complex and challenging relationship’. That speaks volumes. Now, bear this in mind when you look at the picture below that shows how different media outlets interpret the SAME report depending on their own agendas:

First of all… Artistic licence. I’m a fairly smart guy and I love science, but I find scientific papers almost always confusing, often inaccessible and regularly boring. So I look to ‘the news’ to tell me what I need to know. Depending on your news outlet of choice, you’d take away from that picture either that ‘exercise is good’ (BBC) or ‘exercise is bad’ (Independent) (I read the one in the Daily Mail and they said immigrants were at fault for it). I know what you’re going to say here: read the whole article and you’ll find out. Yes – I did. And both articles say similar things BUT lots of the general public look at a headline to decide whether they click through and read the article. It needs to be attractive. Anyway, that’s only point one…

Next up is the idea that exercise should be undertaken by all. I had a few people get in touch after the shows to say that they are worried because exercise scares them. They feel daunted, anxious, overwhelmed and out of their depth. All extremely valid points and all worthy of that person saying ‘I’m not going to exercise because it could do me more harm’. Exercise is NOT the only form of treatment for people with mental health issues/illnesses. Nor should it suddenly take the place of drugs, therpaies or other treatments. It’s just another option – something that sometimes makes some people feel good. This research showed that if people with mental illnesses do exercise, they are likely to feel better but what it also says is that the reasons are unclear and that it’s a multi-faceted area that does not define what specifically works best. It’s easy to forget that some people have such terrible, crippling mental health problems that exercise is not an option. That is absolutely fine and it could be so harmful if that person assumes they NEED to exercise. For me, exercise should be ‘as and when’ and not ‘do it now’.

Next one: The definition of exercise. Please note that exercise does not have to be a ball-busting, physically demanding and sweat-dripping experience. The report clearly states that gardening and cleaning count, for example. Exercise is… activity. I think that’s a better word. It’s about removing yourself from a situation or environment and enthusing yourself with something (slightly) physical and mentally stimulating. I spoke to a lovely sounding lady on the radio yesterday (did I mention I was on the radio yesterday?) who was a wheelchair user, had a range of mobility issues and was concerned about her weight. She can’t go and bench press 100kg, run a fast 5k or go and have a kickaround with her mates. But what she can do is go and meet some new people, have engaging conversations and find people or places to do new things. The art of getting to those places is exercise in itself. The well being aspect of this is so much more important than whether it helps you to shift the pounds or not.

Ok. Final one… The definition of mental illness. This is slightly more convoluted and a personal bug bear but you do not have to be mentally ill to have your mental health benefited by exercise. MENTAL HEALTH IS NOT MENTAL ILLNESS. They are two different things and exercise is neither a cure not a treatment exclusively for those who are mentally ill. I’m very lucky – I’ve never had a mental illness. But what I do know is exercise in all forms has benefited my mental health immensely. In my opinion, there is no other area of medicine that is as wide-ranging as mental health. It encompasses so many people with so many issues, illnesses and conditions that it’s impossible to suit everyone’s needs. When you add to that the fact that mental illness is often coupled with other medical requirements or socio-economic issues, it’s clear that we cannot cater for everyone. HAVING SAID THAT (I nearly used notwithstanding then, which would have made me a grade A knob), we cannot ignore the benefits to a majority of people just for fear of not reaching everyone!

That’s it. My little blog/rant/sharing of thoughts is just about over. Remember this: It’s not for everyone and it doesn’t replace other treatments but undoubtedly, exercise works for a lot of people in controlling their mental illness. BUT… It doesn’t always work and don’t expect immediate results. My recommendations as a PT is for people to give it a go – go out there and try doing a bit more and regularly assess how you feel. Keep a diary, perhaps. But don’t expect immediate results – don’t give up early on and say it didn’t work. Persevere to the point of control and not beyond. And find something you find fun, not something you know you’ll hate and subsequently fail at.


Oh, and if you’ve got a mate who doesn’t seem right lately, in my opinion, nothing – NOTHING – beats someone saying ‘you alright mate? Fancy a beer or a tea or a walk or something’?





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