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Exercise and mental health

Hadyn Luke posted this on Friday 26th of April 2013 Hadyn Luke 26/04/2013

Tags: Special populations


Exercise and mental health

This blog focuses on improving mental health through exercise. 

Personal trainers and fitness professionals will be familiar with some of the many studies into the physiological benefits of exercise, from general fitness and weight control to illness prevention. However, it has also been found that exercise can have a positive effect on mental health, from general stress and anxiety to more serious depression. 

How exercise can help to regain control

The NHS Choices website (www.nhs.uk) has several features on mental health, which provide useful information for personal trainers and anyone else working in the health and fitness industry. 

These include an article on Exercise for Depression, which features the professional advice of Dr Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health. Dr Cohen explains that people suffering from anxiety or depression often feel they are not in control of their lives and suggests that exercise can help them regain control of their bodies, which can be the first step to feeling in control of other aspects of their life.

Who can benefit?

Although exercise can help those with more severe depression, it is especially effective with those who have mild depression, or suffer from anxiety or stress. This may include work-related stress, family issues or money worries.

What exercise is recommended for those with mental health issues?

Any exercise can be beneficial, but the key is for the subject to find a form of exercise that they enjoy, or to work with a personal trainer to find a suitable activity to keep them engaged, as then they are more likely to stick with it.

This may be as simple as going for a walk or to the park with friends, or playing a game of five-a-side. It can also help to have a social element to the exercise, for example joining a walking group or a sporting club.

A personal trainer should be aware that a very structured, high-intensity programme of exercise can be off putting for clients with mental health issues and often a gentler, less structured activity is more appropriate.

Guidelines for exercise

Government guidelines recommend around 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week. Alternatively, this 150 minutes of moderate activity can be broken down into smaller chunks of, say, 15 minutes at a time, to fit in around work and other commitments of daily life. 

Research has shown that even a short 15-minute walk can help to clear the mind, get the muscles working, get the endorphins flowing and generally help an individual enjoy the feel good factor that exercise can bring. 

Exercise as an alternative to pills

Many people who go to the doctor with concerns about stress and depression are offered pills to help them manage their problems. However, some GPs will recommend exercise as treatment and patients should ask about the options open to them. 

Across the UK, there are support mechanisms in place such as exercise referral schemes, some of which offer subsidised costs. These can allow those with mental health issues to have access to working with a personal trainer or fitness instructor. 

Because of the stigma that often comes with mental health, it can benefit a patient to be referred to a group that helps them to fit in and take part in physical activities in a social environment. 

The benefits of physical activity on mental attitude

It has been medically proven that those who are physically active not only have a lower risk of a wide variety of diseases and early death, but also up to a 30% lower risk of depression. 

If an individual is fit and healthy, they are more likely to have a positive mental attitude. They will probably be more productive at work and have more energy to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. 

Conversely, stress, anxiety and depression can be a contributory factor in developing or exacerbating certain medical conditions, and people who are out of shape or suffering from ill health are more likely to feel stressed and depressed, with low self esteem and low self confidence. 

A personal trainer or fitness instructor can cite the many benefits of exercise, including taking a holistic approach to diet, lifestyle and stress, whether working with new or existing clients. 

Considerations around providing exercise for mental health

If a fitness professional is working with a client who has mental health issues, whether they are an existing client or have been specifically referred, there are certain factors to take into consideration. 

The environment in which the client trains can have a bearing on their ability to benefit from the exercise and to stick with it. For example, a client with low self esteem may prefer not to train in a busy gym with lots of other people around.

Setting a workout that is too hard for the client can also have a detrimental effect on their self esteem as they may see a failure to complete a session as a personal failure and become demotivated. However, if a personal trainer sets a manageable programme that their client can enjoy while feeling a sense of achievement, they are more likely to return and continue to benefit from the positive mental influence that exercise can have.



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