We know that our 'wellbeing' is defined as a positive physical, social and mental state but when World Mental Health Day comes round each year my immediate thought is EXERCISE. Yes, this is my job so it's no great surprise I jump to the physical aspect of wellbeing so quickly - but I'm also aware of the huge importance it has for us all. Not everyone enjoys the gym but I know how much better I feel after a session after a good workout and I take no greater job satisfaction than finding something that works for people and watching them reap the rewards it brings. No two people are the same and therefore no 2 gym programmes are the same that we write either. Our goals are unique, our motivation is unique and our preferences are unique. But the beauty of owning a gym setting is that I know there is something in there that will suit everyone somewhere, especially if you create an unintimidating and welcoming atmosphere.
Recently I had a member of my gym explain a personal situation that I found incredibly frustrating. She had been prescribed anti-depressants due to an ongoing issue at home. The situation had spiralled out of control, causing her to gain weight rapidly through poor diet and lack of exercise. As we all know, once this happens it's all too easy to lose control both mentally and physically but the prescription this individual had been prescribed was known for causing an increase in appetite. Now, I'm not a GP and I'm in no place to judge decisions made by professionals but to me, this just seems crazy. On asking her about how she was feeling in the first place it was all surrounding weight gain – yet, there she was now fighting against a medication known for increased appetite, which in turn led to further weight gain. I was then battling to get her to keep her motivated to exercise due to her loss of confidence due to her changing body. It all just seems a vicious cycle and one that I quite often feel exercise can break.
Diet is also hugely important of course but I know from experience that we tend to want to and find it easier to eat well if we are exercising too. To me, exercise should also be an initial go-to solution to try for anyone suffering from mental health issues. I wanted to understand this more so asked a local councillor her views on the matter.
April White, Counsellor at Space to Talk Counselling in Romsey explained this to me more:
"When we exercise, we release four happiness chemicals; dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins: Exercising increases confidence, reduces stress and anxiety, treats depression and builds social networking. Research suggests that regular exercise may be more effective for mild to moderate depression than anti-depressants (NHS, 2020). Exercise also forms part of self- care, something which I speak a lot about when people come into therapy. Looking after the mind and body comes as a package. You can't have one without the other, they are intrinsically linked. Exercise is not just about hardcore HIIT classes, it is anything which moves the body; breathing exercises, yoga, walking, weights, jogging, etc. There can be a lot of fear and avoidance around exercising, to begin with. When we avoid, the bigger the fear will grow. I would encourage anyone to wade through that fear and discomfort and speak to your local gym to draw on their expertise to establish an achievable program unique to you. Also, tell your gym that you're new and nervous, so they can do all they can to help and support you.
Due to the advances in neuroscience, we now know that yoga and meditation reduce anxiety and rewires the brain into a more positive state (Van Der Kolk, 2015). Boxing and running can be very healthy channels to process anger, which is a very normal emotion, but one which society often views as negative. Any form of exercise which increases the heart rate for 10 minutes, will do wonders for depression. I feel it is important that people find something that they enjoy, feel good about and to have as much fun as possible.
So I may be the advocate for boxing and running but yoga is something I also love and practice myself when I can. Louise Slimm, from The Yoga Woods, agrees:
"Our mental health is just as important as our physical health and the practice of yoga is a perfect way connecting our bodies and minds. The word Yoga means "Union" for this very reason. The breath is an essential part of yoga as it links the body and mind. It gets us more into our bodies and creates a sense of space within our minds bringing us into the present. All those thoughts that get stuck in our minds throughout the day get eased away by the breathing techniques which help to declutter the mind.
Tension within the body is often caused by mental stress. We all hold tension in different parts of the body, so Yoga is a way to bring awareness to where it's being held. The postures, breath work and mediation all work to help dissolve that tension. I aim for people to leave class feeling a little bit lighter and more at ease within their bodies and minds. Yoga is a wonderful way to help reduce stress, relieve anxiety and help with depression. Recent studies also show that Yoga improves the quality of sleep which is so important for mental health"
I truly believe that Yoga is accessible for everybody regardless of age, gender, size, body shape and physical ability. There are so many different classes out there you just have to find the class that resonates with you. I teach a full spectrum of classes ranging from gentle restorative yoga through to the more physically dynamic advanced levels.
Is there any type of yoga that is better than another for mental health?
You'll find the right type of Yoga that suits the needs of your body and your mind. For me, it's always been about finding a connection with the right teacher. You'll know it when you find the right class and it can change your life for the better in so many ways. My yoga practice has changed so much over the years. I used to need strong dynamic classes to help me find that mental release and sense of calm. Now Restorative Yoga is my mental release. I find the longer, slower pace means I have plenty of time to experience the unique benefits of each pose with guided breathing, meditations and visualisations. It's a great way to unwind, calm the nervous system, and reduce your stress hormones as you rest in stillness. I'm always more than happy to talk to anyone who would be interested in starting Yoga.
I'd love to have had time to chat to a GP on this topic more and am keen to establish this link with my gym for my understanding in the future - but for now, I feel fully justified in preaching exercise as the remedy for pretty much anything! It can help depression and anxiety, decrease stress, increase self-esteem and self-confidence, help promote better sleep and boost brainpower. In the case of the member I mentioned earlier I'm pleased to say that she pushed for a new medication (and a lower dose) of anti-depressants, with the long-term goal of coming off them completely through a well-balanced diet and regular gym classes. I'm always keen on helping these people. This, for me, is total job satisfaction.
Contacts for April & Louise here
April White, Counsellor at Space to Talk Counselling in Romsey www.spacetotalkcounselling.
Louise Slimm, The Yoga Woods www.theyogawoods.