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Does our mental health really benefit from exercise?

We’ve all seen it before on TV and across social media, celebrities advertising the latest fitness craze and telling us how much it will benefit our mental health, but how much does exercise really affect our mental health? I had the great pleasure to interview people from within different areas of the fitness industry.

As a fitness instructor myself, and someone who enjoys dancing and yoga, I can say first hand how exercise has improved my mental health. A few years ago I was diagnosed with depression and if it wasn’t for exercise I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today. It has allowed me to regain my self worth and find myself again. When I was at my lowest, being able to workout provided me with an outlet, a chance to process everything and also a chance to simply escape from the world around me.

But that’s enough about me. Over the past decade the fitness industry has grown and now plays host to a multitude of ways to workout, from HIIT sessions, DDMIX, Zumba, getting a PT or simply just going to a gym. With so many options out there, do they all benefit us in the same way? Does fitness still benefit our mental health? Or is it simply a con? I interviewed people within the fitness industry from the CEO of Diverse Dance Mix and a Personal Trainer, to a Music Teacher and Financial Investigator, to see what their thoughts were on the matter and to see just how much our mental health can be impacted by working out.

With the nation plummeting into a national lockdown at the beginning of 2020, our mental health was at risk from becoming deeply impacted. Having to stay in our homes and not see our loved ones made it quite hard for many of us to stay positive. However, for some of us exercise became our outlet and coping mechanism for dealing with the struggles of a life of isolation. Like many, Charlie (a Financial Investigator from London) started running during lockdown, saying that “it was my saviour”. Charlie isn’t alone in this, a PT from the north of England also stated that exercise and working out has become their coping mechanism. A way in which to gain control over our own bodies. Although some people have said that personally, exercise has helped them to gain control over their mental health, does it have the same impact on everyone?

Talking openly about our mental health is still a very taboo subject, so why aren’t we trying to educate the world on the benefits exercise has on our mental health, and make this a normal topic of discussion? One PT said that “Exercising literally changes the chemicals in our body where we are then exposed to a myriad of positive energy” and as I sit here writing this blog post I can picture my clients when they have finished one of my classes. They visibly appear happier and when they leave I will always receive comments such as “I feel much better after that” or “that really helped today”. So if exercise is so good for both our body and mental health, why aren’t the benefits being more widely acknowledged?

With so many people spreading the word about how working out can benefit you in many ways, why are we still so afraid to speak out and ask for help? We live in a society where we subconsciously feel like everyone is judging us when we try something new. I am the same, when I first started exploring different parts of the gym I felt like everyone there was judging what I was doing, but the reality? No one really cared what I was doing, and we were all probably there for the same reason. Working out gives us that chance to focus on us. Having that chance to focus on ourselves without worrying what others are doing. As Graeme (a Music Teacher from Edinburgh) says, “Exercise for me, is a great preventative tool”. I couldn’t agree more with him. No matter what exercise we do, it gives us a tool we can use for life. Something that helps us to deal with any mental health issues that we may have to face during our lives. Even for fitness instructors, who workout for a living, it can be challenging for them to find time to exercise for themselves. As Giselle (CEO of DDMIX) says “it is equally important that I take time to exercise for myself too, as that is when I really feel the benefits.” Which I couldn’t agree with more. When we take time to purely do something for ourselves, it is only then that we really feel the benefits. As a fitness instructor, I spend the majority of the classes I teach making sure that my class understands the workout and are having fun, but don’t really focus on myself, which is why it is so important that I take time to workout for myself.

We can't, however, talk about the relationship between exercise and mental health, without talking about nutrition. Food, for many of us, has the power of making us feel better and changing our mood, but just what impact does it have when we are thinking about mental health and exercise? When asked, all those interviewed agreed that nutrition plays an important part. Both Charlie and Graeme said that eating regular meals has helped them with both their mental health and getting into a routine. It keeps you focussed and allows you to take a holistic approach to your body and mind. Yes there are a few diets out there that claim to help you lose a certain amount of weight in a certain number of days, but unanimously everyone I interviewed agreed that it was more about eating in moderation than cutting things out. As a good friend of mine once said, it’s not about what you eat, it's about how much you eat, and they couldn’t be more right. For me, having a healthy diet is about having a balanced diet. Having a good balance between eating things that are really healthy and nutritious, but also feeling like I can have the occasional treat.

So, when it comes to mental health and exercise what’s the consensus? Does it actually benefit us or is it just a fad? Well, it seems to benefit us all in similar ways. Giselle also said that often the hardest part of working out is to take that first step. To actually begin the exercise. I bet if you asked anyone who works out, they would agree that the hardest part was taking the first step. Overcoming that inner fear that everyone is going to judge you. In reality, once you’ve taken that first step it opens an array of possibilities. Giselle also states that, there are now so many options and different styles of workouts that there is literally an option for everyone. From dance fitness such as DDMIX and Zumba to attending a HIIT workout or a Bootcamp, the options seem to be endless. So, if you are in doubt, take that first step, try that class you’ve always wanted too and see for yourself just how huge the benefits will be to your mental health. As a PT once said “30 mins investment = more return on your health”.

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