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Why Mental Health MATTERS in the Fitness Industry?

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

As I was looking for information regarding mental health and physical activity, I realized that not many fitness professionals are involved in this subject. Even though we all know how physical activity can impact and benefit our lives, we still don’t pay much attention to this, for some still taboo, subject. Even the definition of fitness very rarely includes factors related to mental health.


So, isn’t our mental health a part of us being healthy? Simply feeling good, motivated, confident, energized. How about the role played by the endocrine system? All the hormones being produced during physical exercises? All the mood changes and psychological aspects related to fitness activities? Can we really define “being fit” by just numbers estimating our body fat % or the amount of muscle mass? Is the term “fitness” really only physical? I think there’s so much more to this subject than we usually consider.



What we all do know is that maintaining physical fitness can help with the diversity of diseases, ailments, pains, and aches. Physical fitness can change our body composition drastically while changing also our appearance. Muscle hypertrophy will add shape, cardiovascular training will strengthen our hearts, stretching will increase flexibility resulting in easing a number of medical complaints.


So yes, all the above will definitely make us physically fit. But how about our mentality?


Many psychiatric experts would classify mental well-being somewhere in between being functional (healthy) and dysfunctional (unhealthy) in relation to aspects of functioning that are not specific to a bodily or physiological system (thinking, perception, responding, behavior, personality, intellect, and emotion). However, lines between mental health, mental ill-health, or mental illness are still very blurred and overlapping. The term “mental illness” is usually being used when there are clear signs and symptoms (a syndrome) present and where there is a distinct deterioration in the person’s functioning.


What we, especially but not only, fitness professionals should be aware of, is the way we look at a person with a mental health condition. A general lack of awareness, fear, discomfort, and ignorance pushes us to label people and sweep the subject under the carpet. Very often we unconsciously adopt a stereotype and exclude mentally ill people out of our circle.


The Mental Health Foundation reports that 70% of people with mental health conditions have experienced discrimination (including family, friends, and healthcare professionals). In addition to that 42% choose not to tell anyone about their condition which means they are lacking crucial support. These numbers show how much awareness and understanding are needed in the mental health subject. Most likely all of us know at least a person or two struggling with a certain condition, but we are just not aware of it, or what’s worse we might be ignoring the signs.



As a personal trainer myself I would like to highlight that I believe fitness professionals should not be trying to diagnose their clients, however, I cannot emphasize more how important it is to be aware of mental conditions they might be suffering from. We should also be aware of our own behavior influencing their mental state. The holistic approach in treating mental illness should include not only medical and psychiatric professionals, but also non-medical professionals, who have complementary knowledge, like us, fitness trainers, plus the support system – family and friends of a client.


FITNESS COMPONENTS


Looking at the above we can distinguish several components of so-called “fitness”. Typically the focus would land on more than one specific skill, also age, and health-related needs.


However, in my opinion, a comprehensive fitness program should be tailored while taking into consideration also mental, social, and emotional health. After years of experience as a fitness professional, I could easily say, these components also play quite an important role in the overall health and fitness level.


Physical activity not only changes our body components such as muscle mass or body fat mass but also does influence our mental state. For some, it can simply help to overcome sleeping problems while for others will make wonders managing different mood disorders. I can also see improvement of the mental health in certain individuals struggling with more severe disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and disturbed eating habits.


In some textbooks, we can find the physical, emotional, and mental fitness presented as a triangle made up of these three points. I strongly believe this approach should always be considered while assessing the fitness level of an individual and creating any sort of training program.


MENTAL HEALTH AND THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE


We don’t have to think much when someone asks us what are the physical health benefits of exercise. However, when it comes to mental health we usually think of it as “feeling better”. What other benefits we could think of?

  • Reduced risk of depression. (The Chief Medical Office Report (2004) states that physical activity is effective in the treatment of clinical depression and can be as successful as psychotherapy or medication, particularly in the longer term.)

  • Reduced tension and feeling of stress (better control of cortisol levels).

  • Reduced paranoia and phobia episodes, stabilizing the mood and energy levels.

  • Reduced anxiety, feeling happier, more satisfied with life (production of endorphins during the exercise can calm anxiety and lift the mood).

  • Clearer thinking and a greater sense of calm.

  • Increased self-worth and self-image (improvements in body composition, sense of achievement from reaching fitness goals).

  • Decreased cost of medication.


PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND MENTAL HEALTH IN NUMBERS:

  • 83% of people with mental health problems have used physical activity and exercise to help lift their mood / reduce stress.

  • 75% of gym members used exercise to reduce stress.

  • 68% of gym members thought their general mental well-being would suffer if they stopped exercising.


  • 65% of people with mental health problems said the exercise had helped to relieve depressive symptoms, while figures for symptom relief of other conditions are also high (62% stress, 56% anxiety, 12% manic depression, 10% schizophrenia).

  • 57% of people with mental health problems reported improved motivation from being active, 50% improved self-esteem, 24% improved social skills.

  • 35% of gym members reported improved performance at work.

Survey by mental health charity Mind (2001), (Lawrence & Bolitho, 2015)


Now I’d like you to take a break and think about your emotional well-being. Think about your demands or stresses. Think about the way they are affecting you. Take a break from your concerns, appraise your emotional health, and try to dedicate some time to your mental fitness, so in combination with the physical one would give you the benefit of feeling healthy, rejuvenated, and more confident.




 

References:


Lawrence D., Bolitho S. (2015) The complete guide to physical activity and mental health. London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc


The National Institute of Mental Health (2016) Depression – definition of depression. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml


Colman A.M. (2015) A Dictionary of Psychology (4 ed.). Oxford University Press. Anxiety – definition. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199657681.001.0001/acref-9780199657681-e-551?rskey=EEnuih&result=1


Colman A.M. (2015) A Dictionary of Psychology (4 ed.). Oxford University Press. Depression – definition. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199657681.001.0001/acref-9780199657681-e-2201


 
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