In recent years, as mental health and fitness have both rapidly become controversial topics amongst society, with it has also begged much speculation and research of, “how can fitness benefit Mental Health?”
Exercise is well renowned for its positive effects from a physical stand-point, but as years have gone by exercise as oppose to prescribed medication or homeopathy is more commonly being encouraged by professionals to individuals with Mental Health. To function correctly, your body needs exercise – This includes cognitive functions which require adequate stimulation on a regular basis to maintain a positive-neutral state. This is because of how physical exercise directly affects our biochemistry by optimizing hormonal output, thus improving mental health.
The research that has conducted has confirmed that there are several reasons as to why exercise benefits mental health. For the majority of the global population this includes the primal instincts that have been hard-wired into human DNA since time began in regards to survival. This means we are genetically programmed to achieve a certain amount of activity in our lives including acquiring essentials that are required to survive such as food and water. This means that an unsatisfactory amount of physical and/or mental stimulation can result in poor mental health.
The brain is arguably one of the most complex organisms that exists and far from being fully understood. However, what is known is that the brain uses it’s own communication method in order to carry out vital tasks between cells. The “communicators” in this case would the hormones that are secreted from various points in the brain. Studies have shown the significant increase in dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin levels which directly affect mood. The higher the output of these hormones, leads to a “happier” brain. A happier brain that’s abundant in serotonin, functions far more efficiently than a one that lacks. As the brain is deemed as the “control centre” for the entire anatomy, this means better mental health and physiology as a whole. From a basic standpoint, this covers the unconscious side what’s going in our brains.
Making positive changes in our lives makes us feel more positive from within – That’s a certain, and it’s no different to exercising. Getting in better shape, improving fitness levels in whatever aspect and generally physically investing in ourselves has uplifting affects on our mental health. This is made so by the affects that exercise has on cortisol levels (the stress hormone). Exercise creates an environment that acts as outlet for stress and results in the lowering of cortisol levels whilst simultaneously stimulating serotonin and dopamine.
Many with have made claims that exercise has positive effects on their mental health. Several accounts from the some of the Bodypower Model Search Finalists and All Stars International competitors now who all which have firmly adopted fitness into their lives have briefly shared their experiences on how fitness benefits their mental health: Matt Lam, a student, has anxiety and depression: “Basically, without sounding too melodramatic, if I hadn’t of picked up fitness in my first year of university (i’m in my 3rd year now), I probably would have committed suicide by now. Exercise essentially, has become a way of repairing my mind through the building and improvement of the body. When my entire world felt without need or purpose, the feeling that exercising gave me brought me back usually.”
Courtney Cahill, a therapy assistant for the NHS who has body dysmorphia, an eating disorder, anxiety and depression: “Raised endorphins, organising training and diet creates control so more is achieved in other areas of my life. Goals create positivity – Like the stage also makes me feel more positive about assignments, etc.”
Lewis Jay Williams: “Brother, I’m from the street, I’ve had and come from nothing like a lot of people out there, I’ve done time in prison some many years ago , I’m a free man these days due to my passion in the gym, how it makes me feel, my choices I make. Funny enough, in prison I started training with weights, learning about training and nutrition, most importantly finding my inner soul, due to the messed up surroundings/society we live in its easy to get caught up especially at young age and where I’m from it’s all about making a “reputation” and a name for yourself. Turn those negatives into positives, to anybody that is or have gone through a struggle I’ll always advise them, go to the gym etc. If it’s worked for me and if I can save other people’s lives, I can live with that.”
Emma Thompson: “I come from an abusive family, got taken into care when I was 12, the abuse continued and depression started, and got into drugs when 13, living on my own since 17, got off drugs just before I fell pregnant at 21, life has been and still is a struggle. I’ve been misdiagnosed a thousand times, had a hysterectomy at 31 but have now been re-diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having my daughter saved my life, but through fitness I started to take control of all areas of my life. I’ve never been more focused than the first time I cut. I started to deal with a lot of things I usually avoid and start appreciating myself. The stronger my body becomes the stronger my mind is.”
Rebecca Wattam, a bikini competitor, “I’ve had depression from a young age, which was left undiagnosed, and I’ve had to fend for myself since I was 14. My older brother was almost sectioned and living homeless, my twin brother had depression and OCD and was taken to boarding school, and my mum moved in with her third husband. The house was sold and I had nowhere to live, so I spent most of my teenage years moving from place to place, but I always made sure I had a job. I did unfortunately get caught up badly on cocaine. I plummeted to 9.5 stone (I’m almost 6ft) I’d go into work having been up all night doing coke and taking my last line before work. Then I had a bad trip on acid. Something had to give so I went to work abroad to get away from everything. But I felt more depressed, anxious and alone than ever.
I never touched drugs after that and finally got my depression diagnosed in my mid 20’s after I hit ‘rock bottom’ emotionally, the feelings of not wanting to get out of bed, or socialise, of being chronically sad all the time, not knowing why or how could possibly like me, not liking myself. And no, I didn’t want to be alive anymore. The doctors put me on medication, which I’m still on, although a lower dose now, but I couldn’t be without it. I’ve always been a big eater but kept slim working with show jumping horses, so when I stopped working with horses I put on weight. My large appetite turned to binging which then developed into an eating disorder, bulimia, because I hated all the weight I put on. There were times I could binge until I could eat no more and then purge over 10 times a day. It consumed my life.
I dabbled a bit in training, did a triathlon and cycling, but I struggled with my eating still. Hypnotherapy and counselling didn’t work for my bulimia. Training for a bikini comp was the first time I ever managed to control my eating, because it taught me how sensitive our bodies are to the smallest diet change. I’ve learnt to respect my body, and I love the feeling of having energy physically and mentally, to have good skin! Even when I’m not at my slimmest for a comp, I am still happy with my body because it’s still toned and healthy. The ironic thing is, that I approached a coach a couple of years ago regarding training me for a comp, and she refused because I had an eating disorder. I really do understand that the strict dieting and quick weight gain after a comp can be mentally tough for girls to deal with, but actually, for a bulimic, it’s a walk in the park. If anything, it’s perfect for us, because we can safely execute our controlled eating habits. That’s my thoughts anyway.
My twin brother gave me the most valuable advice for my depression, “Life is like a table, the more legs you have, the more stable you become”, and I use that philosophy every day, ensuring I keep busy, and training for competitions is a key element.
Claire Crowther, Pure-Elite Pro Athlete, “Basically to give you some perspective I am an emotional eater and I binge. I went through a divorce at 23 with a young baby and a crap job, I went bankrupt and lost everything and ate myself into obesity. I lost all confidence and got so depressed I attempted suicide and self-harmed regularly. I suffer panic attacks and generalised anxiety and I do struggle particularly in the winter. I obviously lost a lot of weight and training has literally saved my life and stops me sitting in my pit cutting myself off from civilization I find that in the gym my mind is clear and I can focus on me and only me, I can make myself better and when I walk out I get that rush of adrenaline that just lifts my mood better than any antidepressant I have ever taken. When I don’t train I feel myself slipping into old habits and my mood lowers.
Myself, am no stranger to the potentially life changing effects and positive influences exercise has on mental health. Coming from a background of bullying, unstable upbringing and weight issues this placed a downfall on my mental health including low self-esteem, low self-confidence and the progression of anxiety and depression at from my early teens.
Towards the latter end of secondary school I developed bulimia and social anxiety which resulted in me skipping school, making coursework and exam preparation problematic, as well as missing my school prom. Once I left school and went to college, I was eligible for free gym membership which of course I took advantage of and I’d go everyday as soon as I finished college. I was always an enthusiast of sports and being outdoors, but the gym environment quickly become a great love of mine, I was so fresh to it, despite having little co-ordination or knowing what I was doing half the time I still stuck at it anyway. Growing up, i never felt that I really i fit in anywhere with the exception of a few, I was always a little odd to say the least or so I was made to feel that way, but I’d go to the gym, plug my earphones in and lift weights till I ached before making my way home. I’d train until I couldn’t move, until it was a struggle to even raise my arms. Quick enough, it became an obsession of mine and I made fairly quick results in terms of putting on size and strength, but lacking definition as I didn’t have the money to diet properly. Even still, I began reading up on training, nutrition and supplements constantly trial and erroring different methods until I finished college.
After college at the age of 18 I was diagnosed with depression. Having no inner worth, no job and therefore no money to go to the gym I was forced to quit after college and was naive enough to believe medication was my resolution. I couldn’t have been further from the truth, in fact it barely made a difference to me at all. Yet despite my dark thoughts and the on-going negativity that transpired in my life, feeling lonely and having very little that I could say I was happy within myself and life in general, exercising still remained as one of my favorite pass times. It seemed that one of the only times I felt escape my reality was when I was training and knowing I was doing something to push myself, it was like my safe haven where I could zone out and feel free. There is always a way round things and despite financial issues I still carried on and I started using the few weights in my bedroom which I’d had from when I was younger. Anything was better than nothing, again, plugging my earphones in, mixing things up with the weights as well as taking up outdoor running, timing myself and aiming to beat myself every time – I needed that stimulation. Every day, I felt a lacking of energy and motivation, but I refused to let it take me. I was very critical and tough on myself and I made myself do it and the ironic thing about this is I felt this lack of drive almost every time before training, but I’d come out the other side feeling like I was in a much better place.
Between the ages of 19-20 was when life began to turn for me, I’d just got another job and the first thing I had done was join another gym and begin solidly training and taking it far more seriously than I ever did previously. I quickly got back into going at every opportunity I could after work and soon enough, physically, I was gaining results which consciously had a tremendously positive impact on my mental health. I started being able to look in the mirror to see the physical progress I was making which in turn emotionally fed my inner-self. Exercising and constantly elevating myself, further improved my mental wellbeing and I continuously strived to move forward. It was at this point I became more confident and began to come out my shell. Prior to this point, i didn’t go out much. I began going out and drinking a lot more, living the night life, dabbling in recreational drugs, 3 maybe 4 nights a week. Of course I’d been out drinking before, I wasn’t that square, but going out consistently was all new to me and became excessive – It was like a social life relapse.
Skip forward some to the age of 22 where I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety which particularly affected me before trying to sleep. Whilst still living an active social life, anxiety would trigger at the most inopportune and random moments and at the time it eluded me as to why. I could be sat in a friends or walking in town and one minor worrying thought would set it off. The majority of the time, I had a lot of adrenaline from anxiety built up and I would use the gym to de-escalate and relax. Even before a 13.5 hour shift, I rarely ever failed to train first and if I did I would still go on my 1 hour break. Metaphorically speaking, as far as anxiety was concerned, it was like getting my bloods taken only the blood was anxiety and I’d tire myself out until it gradually dissipated. Exercise was undoubtedly a useful way to utilise anxious energy, however I neglected to think that there was an underlying problem and hoped that anxiety would leave on its own. I eventually started having panic attacks at work and at home more so on the night time when I was trying sleep and so I started taking trazodone to help me with this. It got to a point where I became so tired and drained from it that I’d had enough and decided to face it. I progressed whilst still using training and direction to distract me from anxious thoughts as I got better, whenever I felt heightened I’d write down my triggers and challenge the chances of them happening whilst reminding myself that it’s all in my head.
I practiced this daily for the next year and a half to two years. I found the aid of exercise was fundamental in subsiding anxiety in conjunction with challenging my thoughts. I continued to stick at it until it became habit and despite up and down days which we all will still have from time to time, I can indefinitely say that I am liberated of anxiety and depression, as well as low self-confidence/esteem issues. We all start at different levels in life, some better and some worse. At one point in my life I refused to look for work that remotely had anything to do with customer interaction due to my own self-confidence and a fear of public speaking. Setting goals in fitness and sticking to them has helped me over come that and made me realise what I am capable of and have continued to push myself along the way. Since then, I have exceeded my own expectations by being involved in things I never even thought of or never had the confidence to do, including working in a customer service environment and public speaking but in addition, doing photo shoots, gaining ambassador/sponsorships with clothing and supplement companies, being topless in public or in an audience of over 1000 people, but more importantly leaning to be open and feeling comfortable in my own skin.
To conclude, along with the previously mentioned, I will be joining the above names in the Bodypower Model Search Finals and All Star Internationals this year and competing alongside them. My aim and mantra in life from here on out is to continue to move forwards and seeing how far i can go, buy never forgetting the struggles that were intertwined in my journey and how it was fitness that created the foundations that enabled me to break through my own battles with mental health and literally turning my life around.
– Gavin Roberts.