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Exercise to support a mental health issue

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Getting started with exercise when you have a mental health issue

The importance of mental health is thankfully becoming something that is more commonly spoken about. Our physiological health, and maintaining a healthy mental state, is just as important as our physical health. It affects how we think, feel and act, determines how we handle stress and influences how we relate to others.1

One of the unfortunate realities of not being in a good mental state though, is that this is time when you could truly benefit from a movement workout – however small, but is often one of the times when you are least inclined to do one.

Reconsidering ‘exercise’ and focus on activities you enjoy

Just the very word ‘exercise’ can be overwhelming – particularly when we don’t feel inclined to do it. Often this is because we relate exercise to activities we don’t enjoy, or times in life when we were forced to exercise but didn’t want to – on a cold, wet day back when we were at school perhaps. The great thing about being an adult though, is that you are the one calling the shots! Think of it less as exercise, and more finding an activity you like, that gets you moving. There are so many health benefits of physical exercise and you don’t need to force yourself to endure a flat-out cardio session at the gym to experience them! You could go for a short walk or simply potter about in the garden tidying up the plants and pulling out the weeds, for example. Gardening is great for mental and physiological health and fresh air is always good for the soul, but even on days where the weather puts you off, you might like to try a new online dance workout, or another online movement workout. There are plenty of different options available on Zoom right now, either as part of a class or pre-recorded, so if you’re not comfortable exercising in front of others you don’t have to worry.

Schedule workouts when your energy is highest

We are all different. Some of us love early mornings, whereas others struggle to get out of bed no matter how much sleep they’ve had. You might come alive in the evenings, or you might want to crawl into bed at 9pm. Whether you are a lark or an owl, it doesn’t matter. Just go with it. Studies have shown that there is a strong argument for getting exercise done first thing in the morning as it’s out of the way for the day and will give you a boost,2 but if you’re really not a morning person then that’s ok. Schedule your exercise in the afternoon or early evening. While early mornings are ideal, they are not the only way.

Be comfortable

Whatever you need to do to be comfortable, do it. If you don’t want to sign up to the 5k run that your friends are trying to rope you into then don’t – but consider your reasons. Do you really think you can’t do it? What about if you started training earlier and followed a plan? Are you concerned that you don’t have the appropriate clothing? Ask others what they would wear or look on running forums. You should never feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to, but if you are saying no because you are uncomfortable about certain aspects that might be easy to overcome, perhaps try and consider whether there is something you could do to make the experience more enjoyable for you.

Reward and be kind to yourself

Whatever your movement workout of choice, make sure you are running your own race. There will always be someone fitter and stronger than you, but there will always be someone fitter and stronger than them too. You don’t need to compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to yourself instead. If you couldn’t do something yesterday that you can do today – even if you find it difficult – then reward that achievement. Anything you do today is better than nothing you did yesterday.

Make exercise a social activity

Studies have shown that those who exercise in a group, might benefit from better mental health than those who exercise alone.3 Group exercise gives you a number of things that exercising alone doesn’t – accountability to turn up, people to motivate and encourage you to do your best or to help you push through when you are having a bad day, and it can introduce you to new people and new environments that will naturally widen your social and support networks. Again though, it’s important to remember that we are all different. If you would prefer to go for a walk or jog on your own then that’s absolutely fine, and if you would rather exercise in the comfort of your own home then that’s fine too!

Ultimately, the best way to get started with exercise when you have a mental health issue is to find an activity you enjoy. Once you do that, the rest will follow naturally.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm []
  2. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/jappl.2001.91.1.91 []
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1755296617301722?via%3Dihub []