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Exercising the mind: fitness for mental health issues

Mental health and exerciseDepression and exercise


With chocolate-laden Easter now behind us and warmer weather coming in at almost twice a week, (pretty good for London, and as ever, unexpected!), the focus for so many of us is all too suddenly on getting fit, trimming down and getting our bodies ready to look good and impress. Yes, to many it’s the time of year to start tightening, lightening and brightening.

What about the mind?

What is less discussed however than tummies, tanning and turbo juice diets is the effects exercise can have on imbalances in the mind. Many of us equate issues like depression, anxiety, bereavement, low self-esteem and bipolar disorder with being holed up indoors and avoiding the world outside in favour of rest and recuperation. And it’s true that many of those suffering from these problems avoid activity, feeling not only unmotivated but in many cases helpless. In today’s blog we’re going to look at how exercise can help with mental health issues, how to go about being more active in three manageable steps, and what to avoid to keep balance in the mind and body.

Why exercise if you’re feeling bad?

First things first, does exercise make a darn bit of difference if you’re feeling in many ways, drained? Many sufferers would argue that the thing blocking somebody from first exercising and feeling the benefits is the very same issue which has made them feel incapacitated. Many patients however report a significant increase in periods of having a more positive state of mind post exercise, not to mention feeling fitter and more physically functional.

What are the mental benefits of exercise?

According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, ‘Exercise can stimulate other chemicals in the brain called “brain derived neurotrophic factors”. These help new brain cells to grow and develop. Exercise also seems to have an effect on certain chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin. Brain cells use these chemicals to communicate with each other, so they affect your mood and thinking.’ In other words, exercise makes us feel better. Well that’s the science part, but what are the more direct benefits of exercise, for example- what would motivate a depressive person to take exercise?

Taking control – many depression-sufferers can come to feel victimised by their illness, feeling both hopeless and out of control of how they feel. By choosing to take some exercise, booking into a class or calling a friend to play a game or go for a run, that person is taking control of how they feel, raising their self-esteem and also choosing to self-medicate in safe, natural and reliable ways.

Building routine – another well-known symptom of depression is time-loss, vagueness and an inability to ‘get things done on time.’ Having an exercise session can be the start of planning a day and feeling part of a routine which can bring both clarity and a feeling of purpose and achievement.

Change of environment – the life of someone suffering from depression or high anxiety can come to feel very limited, and they may stay close to people, places and activities they know to ‘manage’ their symptoms. By breaking out and changing environment however, they can become more present in the moment, more adaptable to change and may benefit from new experiences which raise positive feelings and expand the mind.

So how do you start?

  1. Ask a friend. A well-known motivator of exercise is to band together with a friend. Choose someone who knows your intention within the goal and is open to talking about how it makes you feel before and after. It’ll help to normalise the activity, especially if you’re booking a class exercise.
  2. Think fun! not necessarily popular… When people think of exercise they often think of going to the gym or joining a gym. The gym however can be a negative space for many people with mental health issues and may trigger anxieties on many levels. Have a brainstorm, perhaps with a friend, about engaging activities. This could perhaps be something you previously enjoyed during a more happy period of your life.
  3. Start with one thing. One class, once during the week is an adequate start to what could become a more regular routine, should the effects be positive and welcome. Despite the media, there is great value in doing manageable sessions, especially where mental health is concerned and the goal is to feel better, not worse. Make a commitment to yourself to check in on how you’re feeling and be ready to adapt the session(s) if they’re not working towards a happier result.


What to avoid

Overwhelming goals. As many exercise professionals and therapists would say- don’t create too challenging a routine for yourself. Having too big a goal is a surefire way to decrease motivation and could also trigger feelings of inadequacy and self-judgement which may already preside. Share your intentions with another for perspective.

Inconvenience. Fitting in exercise needn’t be a headache and is often more enjoyable when it doesn’t conflict with other pressing commitments. What and where can you exercise which is totally convenient to you?

Uncomfortable spaces. The practise of exercise should make you feel better and build your confidence, not be a trigger to feelings of ‘compare and despair.’ If the activity you’ve chosen or the environment you’re doing it in doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Aim to be flexible and willing to change the location if you need to.

At Fresh Mind Therapy we use practical and manageable approaches to deliver a holistic and lasting set of results you can feel in a short time-frame. By helping you to face challenges head-on and also consider the role the body plays in effective treatment, you can start to enjoy more confidence and a feeling of moving forward. To speak to us about how we could help you overcome depression, anxiety or a range of other mental issues, get in touch with us here.
photo credit: Arya Ziai via photopin cc