Fitness professionals are uniquely positioned to help clients who live with mental illness, writes movement coach and counsellor Kylianne Turton.
- Mental illness is becoming one of the biggest contributors to global illness, and is a major cause of morbidity and mortality
- Those who live with a mental illness are less active than their counterparts
- Regular exercise can help clients experience increased self-confidence, self-esteem and self-acceptance
- Physical activity also promotes increased mental flexibility, stress resilience and serves as a distraction from internal negative thoughts.
It’s no secret that we feel good after a workout: we have experienced it ourselves and, anecdotally, clients report back to us their change in mood after a session. Research has also documented the benefits that exercise can have on mental wellbeing.
Mental illness is becoming one of the biggest contributors to global illness, and is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. Those who live with a mental illness are less active than their counterparts, so it would seem that the fitness industry has a significant role to play collectively, in terms of both prevention and enhancing quality of life.
As fitness professionals we are uniquely positioned to support clients who live with mental illness with a powerful protective strategy can improve their mental wellbeing.
When we break down what exercise can give do for us, beyond the aesthetic changes, it is clear to see why it is such an incredible coping strategy for mental illness clients.
Access to support, sense of community and connection
If experienced for long periods of time, loneliness and isolation can affect our mental health and put us at increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks.
As fitness professionals we must not underestimate our ability to provide connection and a sense of community for clients. Whether personal training clients one-on-one, or delivering group sessions, the social interaction we provide can be incredibly valuable for those who are experiencing lack of connection and isolation. Remember to be inclusive and regularly check in with your clients or members to ensure they feel a sense of belonging within your business or facility.
Increased self-confidence, self-esteem and self-acceptance
If programmed correctly according to individual needs, exercise is an incredible tool to help clients reconnect to who they are, separate to their diagnosis. Take some time to come to really understand what it is that they need in order to build their confidence, esteem and acceptance.
Meaning and hope
Exercise is most beneficial to mental wellbeing – as to every area of health – when it is practiced consistently over a prolonged period of time. Helping clients set goals that create a sense of meaning and hope is highly recommended, and will look different for each individual.
These goals should not be based on physical changes and should instead focus on experiences or performances that promote feelings of self-confidence, self-esteem and confidence in the process. Examples are training for fundraising hikes, physical challenges or fun runs. In the process of training, clients will not only get a regular sense of achievement as they steadily increase their strength, speed or endurance, they will also learn a lot about themselves and their capabilities. When the goal is reached, have a debrief with them to discover what they learnt and discuss how they could ingrain those things going forward. I have seen incredible transformations in clients using this philosophy.
A place to safely explore creative problem-solving skills
We face challenges everywhere we turn in life, they are our greatest teachers if we allow them to be. Exercise is an incredible way for clients to be faced with a challenge and learn how to overcome their limiting beliefs and behaviours that hinder them in their daily lives.
Giving clients the opportunity to be challenged, and then giving them the support and equipping them with the tools to overcome these challenges will again help them build self-confidence, esteem and acceptance, which will feed into other facets of their lives. In pushing our bodies limits through physical achievements, we also challenge our brains.
It is important to note that this is not a message of ‘no pain, no gain’. Challenges must be chosen to suit the client’s needs and ensure there is trust, rapport and a safe environment for them to explore what they are capable of.
Debrief afterwards to see how they found the process and establish what they learnt about themselves, what they would do differently, and what they would like to try in order to overcome it with more ease the next time.
Increased mental flexibility
Mental illness impairs cognitive flexibility, which results in continuing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, and restricts the ability to process and acknowledge new information. It also reduces the ability to see new solutions.
Regular exercise increases the volume of certain parts of the brain, in particular the hippocampus – the area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation and learning. Research using animals has shown that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons (neurogenesis). As other evidence has shown that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced new neuron creation, having exercise as a tool to keep the brain healthy and flexible is incredibly important.
There is also research to suggest that exercise makes us more resilient to stressors. In his book Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain Dr John Ratey explains that exercise activates the recovery process in our muscles and our neurons, leaving not just our bodies, but also our minds stronger, more resilient and better positioned to handle future challenges. Ratey writes that the more stress we have in our lives, the more we need to move to keep our brains running smoothly. It has been found that regular exercisers are able to maintain a more positive outlook during stress exposure, thereby minimising the compounding effects of stress that are linked with the development of disease. In a 2014 study Emma Childs and Harriet De Witt theorise that this may be because regular exercisers are able to appraise a situation and have positive strategies to resist stress.
Distraction from internal negative thoughts
Distraction theory maintains that exercise provides space and time away from the symptoms of mental illness, such as internal negative thoughts. By having to think about something else, it removes us from whatever is bothering us, resulting in an improved mood. As Ratey writes in Spark, ‘Exercise also serves as a circuit breaker, interrupting the negative feedback loop from the body to the brain that heightens mental health symptoms.’
Physiological adjustments in the brain to improve mood
Exercise influences the same chemicals that antidepressants do: a study conducted by James Blumenthal and his peers found that exercise was effective as medication. In the book Conquering depression and anxiety through exercise Keith Johnsgard writes that ‘Exercise allows the brain to manufacture chemicals that are similar to many drugs that assist in altering mental functions.’
As Kate F Hays writes in her book Working it out: Using exercise in psychotherapy ‘Exercise is deemed by clients all too often as a chore, but the ability to be active is central to being human, mentally and physically.’
As fitness professionals we can be the keepers of hope for those experiencing mental illness. We are in the powerful yet humbling position of being able to coach clients to move more often in order to reduce the negative symptoms of their condition and boost their mental wellbeing.