What do you get if you Google “Movement for Mental Health”?
“About 444,000,000 articles (in 0.54 seconds)”
And 99.9% of them will tell you that exercise is good for your mental health on the grounds that empirical academic published research has reported that exercise…
- significantly lowers our risk of low mood and depressive bouts with those who exercise moderately having fewer depressive events than people who don’t exercise
- improves brain function and cognition helping us to process thoughts and memories more effectively.
- increases stress tolerance and resilience.
- gets you out of your head and into your body. When we are depressed, we spend a lot of time dwelling on thoughts and ruminating. When we move, our focus is on taking the next breath, the next step so we get a break from those voices in our heads.
- introduces us to new places and people increasing our self-esteem and sense of achievement
- offers a welcome distraction from the often-self-imposed jail (i.e. the safety of our own home) that we imprison ourselves in when we are depressed and void of hope
The other 0.1% of articles were probably written by me or a small body of coaches and academics who believe that exercise might not always be ‘good for mental health’. In fact, I’d personally go as far as to say ‘exercise’ might be completely the wrong thing to do with regards to certain mental illnesses. Why?
Let me explain…
Every person (personality), mental illness (e.g. chronic stress, anxiety, PTSD, depression, bi-polar disorder, body dysmorphia), and situation that a person finds themselves in (employment/relationship/financial) is DIFFERENT. As an exercise referral specialist qualified to provide exercise and training programmes to people with mental illness, I strongly believe that we should not provide a blanket prescription of ‘exercise more’ as a means of managing mental health. Yes, ‘movement’ IS A KEY PART OF MAINTAINING MENTAL HEALTH. However, we need carefully considered programmes that have more chance of adherence and less chance of exacerbating the very illness that we are supposed to be helping.
How to move for mental health
When it comes to exercising for mental health, it is wise to start by understanding the person/yourself as much as you can and match ‘movement’ prescription to the whole picture – not just a desired goal/pb. This means getting clear about:
- the emotional and psychological state or illness that you/someone you are coaching may be experiencing (i.e. anxiety or low mood)
- how long they/you been experiencing ill health for? Is it short term or chronic ill health?
- what (if any) physical symptoms (e.g. fatigue, pain) or illnesses (e.g. type 2 diabetes or IBS) do they/you also have? (most people who experience mental illness also experience co-morbidities that can inhibit performance during exercise).
Once you’ve established all of this, it will be clearer as to what type of ‘activity/energy expenditure’ is sensible for you or someone you coach. I have outlined my definition of options below in order of effort/difficulty. This may seem like semantics but it’s much the opposite. Coaching/training is most effective when we can be specific. Matching movement to mental health is no different.
- Movement: Any movement that requires energy to be used (includes activities such as housework or gardening)
- Physical Activity: Programme of movement (often unstructured) that includes intentional non-essential acts of energy expenditure (such as going for a walk, jog, bike ride, or doing a workout DVD).
- Exercise: Structured, programme of exercise targeting specific goals/objectives
- Training: Periodised and systematic preparation for high levels of performance (both professional and recreational athletes)
Where to start?
If you are reading this and want to embark on a programme of movement to manage your mental health, my advice is to be cautious and modest in your approach. Quite often people start by doing far too much because they are inspired by huge challenges achieved by others around them or on social media. Running marathons, ultramarathons, and even completing multi-day events have become the ‘norm’ as people attempt to overcome mental health problems. And all of this is incredible. It’s fantastic to see so many people manage anxiety or depression in this way. After all what could be better for you, exercise is healthy, right?
Well, less is better for you. Why?
The issue comes when the marathon/challenge is over and fatigue or injury kicks in and people move on to the next post on social media leaving you to manage your mental health with limited resources.
What then? A harder/new challenge?
If you’re exhausted or injured, exercise or more specifically ‘training’ on top of this will simply push you into overreaching/overtraining meaning you’re at risk of not being able to manage mental health how you’d like.
If you’re starting off on a journey to manage your mental health or you’re a coach working with someone with mental health difficulties, my advice is less is often more! This isn’t just my opinion either. Research has shown that for most people experiencing mental illness being ‘moderately active’ can be sufficient to improve mood, manage anxiety and improve resilience to stress. This consists of 30-40 minutes moderate-intensity movement/physical activity, five days a week.
BUT what if I want to train?
You need to make room for it.
All types of movement require energy and the more you do (i.e. when you exercise or train) the more you need! If you’re not filling up the tank before you exercise or replenishing it afterwards, then you won’t sustain it. This will put pressure on your body, negatively affecting your brain and thus mental health – again the very thing you’ve been trying to manage!! And by filling up the tank, (yes, of course I mean food, BUT I also mean connection, fun, love, friendship, creativity, meaning, purpose, laughter, and acceptance… all of the things we sometimes refer to as ‘self-care’) we are stronger and more resilient. Self-care isn’t soft. It’s essential for lowering life stress and increasing mental resilience so that we are adding training to solid foundations. Excessive movement on top of ill health doesn’t often end well.
Movement alone (in whatever form) is NOT the silver bullet for mental health.
So please take note. Exercise and training are just a part of a bigger picture. Yes, a significant, fantastic part of the picture that can contribute so much to our physical and mental health. It brings us together for races, challenges and competition. We make friends and find lovers through participation in our chosen sport/activity. And it changes our physiology improving our brain and hormones reducing our risk of mental illness in the process. BUT only when done right.
What should you do if you suffer from mental illness?
If you suffer from mental health problems and want to move more to manage it all, please
- match your movement to your needs (physical and psychological)
- be willing to forget about mileage, splits, and times when you exercise/train (at least some of the time)
- don’t add training stress to life stress
When you run for you, according to your needs or mental illness, PBs will not only look after themselves, you might even find that you exceed your expectations both mentally and physically without pushing yourself as hard as you thought you needed to.
Health Coach for Stress and Mental Health from London
Age group: 35-40
Club: RunWell Club
Coach: Karen Weir www.runwithkaren.com