Mental Health and Fitness

Date Posted: June 15, 2020

Exercising our mental health awareness...

It’s no secret that exercise is beneficial for our mental health. The facts are well-documented – with even a short 10-minute burst of brisk walking increasing mental alertness, energy and positive mood states. Indeed, physical exercise has been associated with a range of positive mental health outcomes, including reduced stress, increased self-esteem, reduced rates of Depression, Anxiety and Dementia and cognitive decline and greater quality of life for individuals with severe mental health problems (Mental Health Foundation; 2013). In fact, so recognised are the benefits that we are seeing more and more exercise referrals within the health and fitness industry – that is, where physical activity is prescribed as a primary treatment intervention and/or preventative measure towards poor mental health. For more information  about ways exercise can help your mental health, check this out from leading mental health charity, Mind.

However, physical activity can have a negative effect for some individuals who participate in very high levels of physical activity, or ‘overtraining’. With this in mind, I would like to discuss this sometimes ignored side of exercise and mental health – that is, when does excess exercise become problematic? How do we recognise the signs of this issue? More importantly, do we, as fitness professionals, have a duty of care towards our clients or members using our gyms to say something?

As the Mental Health Foundation summarise, “Overtraining can result in a range of short-lived negative effects, such as fatigue, low mood and irritability. Often this can be rectified by resting or changing exercise patterns, such as reducing intensity levels or altering the type of activity to one that uses different muscle groups. However, overtraining may reflect a more unhealthy relationship with physical activity where there is a shift from the person choosing to take part in physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle, to feeling compelled to take part even when the benefits are outweighed by adverse consequences. The problems that can emerge from this compulsion include planning your life around exercise to the exclusion of other domains of daily life that previously brought joy”.

Research carried out from as early as 1990, has shown how some individuals can become over-reliant on exercise, resulting in  worsened mood and physical health. Moreover, over-exercising is not linked only to an unhealthy relationship with physical activity, but can also interact with other significant mental health conditions such as Eating Disorder. For instance, more recent research published in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that, among Physical Education students, females are more likely to exercise to excessive levels, however males whose main goal is focused around hypertrophy (muscle-building) are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. And it is recognised that approximately 39–48% of people suffering from an eating disorder also suffer from exercise dependence.

With ‘Generation Z’ being so heavily influenced by our digital world, where markers of happiness and success are measured by the images and captions we chose to post to others, is social media causing more of us to chase ‘the perfect body’ or the most desirably ‘healthy and active lifestyle’ – and could this lead to a decline in good mental health? From my own personal experience of over 10 years working on the gym floor, it is very clear to see the kind of impact social media is now having on young gym users – from their work-out fashion, even down to their choice of exercise.

So how then, do we distinguish between healthy levels of exercise and that which tips over into exercise dependence? Recognising when exercising develops from a beneficial or social hobby, into a reflection of concerning mental health is not not easy. So many people exercise 7+ times per week, reaping hugely positive benefits for their emotional wellbeing – this does not automatically indicate poor mental health. Likewise, training 3-4 times per week does not necessarily mean another person is good mental health.

In fact, the Mental Health Foundation explain that “seven diagnostic criteria have been suggested to assess exercise dependence: tolerance of increasing amounts of exercise; withdrawal symptoms from not exercising; lack of control over exercise; consistently doing more exercise than was intended; spending a lot of time exercising; reduction in other activities; and continuing to exercise despite physical, psychological and interpersonal problems. The actual volume of exercise may be less important than the motives underlying this behaviour, and it has been suggested that the likelihood of an addiction increases for those who exercise with the goal of escaping unpleasant feelings or transforming their appearance to improve self-esteem as compared to those who exercise with the goal of improving performance and fitness”.

What we see as fitness professionals is just a small glimpse into the lives of our clients or gym users – for the 60 minutes that they are training with us, or using our facilities. However, I would strongly argue that we do hold a duty of care towards others’ mental health; to recognise when there may be an issue and raise our concerns in the correct manner. This could be to speak with a senior member of your team or seek out a mental health first aider if your gym has one. Or, most importantly, to be upfront in communicating with the person you are concerned about and checking in to ask them if they are okay. In a world where we are working proactively to reduce stigma and make conversations around our mental health more accessible and normalised, there is nothing wrong with asking a simple “how are you?” or “how is your training going – what results are you working towards and can I help you get there safely?” After all, that is why we are there in the first place, right?

If you would like to know more about mental health awareness disorders – either within or outside of the fitness industry – and train to be a qualified Mental Health First Aider, visit our courses page now and sign up to our ‘Level 2 in Mental Health Awareness’.

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