Fitness and mental illness

Whether you truly go get that bread, run once a month in an attempt to escape the shame of knowing your takeaway to cooked food ratio or fall somewhere in-between, we can all pretty much agree that exercise is generally viewed as one of the top-tier ways to improve your overall mental wellbeing. “You should exercise more” is up there with the most irritating things to say to someone with a mental illness. Ironically enough I ended up doing just that and garnered some great results but it was on my terms that I started so fuck you, Deborah. I like fitness and- surprise, surprise- I have a mental illness. I’ve always been aware of it but until now I’ve never actually thoroughly addressed how my mental illness has affected and continues to affect my fitness journey. I’d like to subject you all to a post about the weird relationship between fitness and mental illness, how an illness can alter the way a person lives a fit lifestyle, and some tips based on my own experiences of how to build an exercise routine and diet plan whilst suffering with a mental illness. I should say this post has illnesses like anxiety, panic and depression in-mind.

I’ll open up with a bit of backstory about my 3-year attempt to achieve a level of fitness where I can run for the bus and not have an asthma attack. I’ve tried to lead an active lifestyle for some time, having played Rugby in my teens to being a member of my Sixth Form gym to enjoying a career in Volleyball spanning a magnificent one game. I stopped any sort of heart-raising activity when I moved to University. All jokes aside I was still struggling quite a lot with panic at the time and moving to a different part of the country with total strangers didn’t exactly calm the storm. I got back into it in my 2nd year when a good friend suggested I join him for a boxing session at my University boxing club and it all began there. Since then you could say I’ve moved at a good pace; I’ve lost weight, I can run for a bus and not die, (although I do always have my inhaler, better safe than sorry) I’ve competed in a boxing match, completed Tough Mudder and I’ve managed to gain some sort of muscle mass. Hooray I’m a gym bro now. The only thing: this journey has definitely not been a steady and consistent climb up the fitness tree, not one bit. When I started exercising properly again I believed it would provide an escape from my illness; I thought of it as an important step in my recovery for sure but only because exercising proved my panic wrong. Reality hit me pretty quickly when I experienced my first panic attack during exercise, it was terrifying! I’d thrown up a safety barrier and then my inconsiderate mental illness smashed it down. The truth is I’ve experienced anxiety and panic during a lot of workouts and most recently I had to take a breather at a boxing session because I was that exhausted I panicked at the thought of passing out. I experience some kind of anxiety every time I go to the gym; I think most of us do, really. There are certainly times when my anxiety directly impedes a workout: I’ve been too anxious to approach someone to ask how many sets they have left, whether I could jump in etc and instead adapted my workout to move around the issue. This has made me think two things: that the way I lead a fit lifestyle is certainly different to what we might think of “the norm” (if there is a norm?) and, unfortunately, that I don’t belong in a gym. These thoughts come and go, they aren’t a constant. However they’ve got me thinking about mental illness and fitness and that’s why I’m here. Anyway, enough about me.

A gym or any kind of space in which exercise takes place can understandably feel like an uncomfortable, triggering or even outright hostile environment for someone with a mental illness or even someone who experiences say social anxiety or low self-esteem. We mentally-ill folk certainly don’t hold the monopoly on unfortunate life experiences. However to stay with the spirit of the post, the prospect of being in a triggering space can cause a strong aversion to ever being inside it. So it’s easy to feel like you simply don’t belong in a gym or a pool or a studio or even a pavement and that exercise isn’t yours to enjoy. It’s as if your illness is disallowing you from fitness. Now I understand this isn’t the case for everyone with a mental illness, but I’m sure there are plenty have come to accept that exercise and them just aren’t compatible.

Another complicating issue is that people experience different degrees of severity with their illnesses over time. Here I’m speaking to those who suffer from inconsistency right the way to total derailment. We might start making the first steps or even gain some pretty good traction but then a bad episode might begin or a bad night could throw your plan off-track. The point here is that an illness can create complications that might not exist for someone who doesn’t have an illness. We usually tend to imagine a good fit lifestyle consistent of 4-6 days of consistent exercise per-week, an average of 8-hours’ sleep per night, (imagine) and a consistently healthy diet that might relax a little at the weekend. To go back to myself briefly, I can’t remember the last time I hit 5 consistent days of exercise. I plan my weeks out, sure, but I’m just one bad night away from sleeping through my alarm so I have enough sleep just to survive my day at work. Mental illnesses make these kinds of roadblocks more present and these can be seriously disheartening. This peak and trough experience of mine has frequently made me compare myself to people who do achieve remarkable consistency and this has led me to think that I’m just not cut out for a fit lifestyle.

Well, I’d like to share a few tips and even a bit of positivity after all that doom and gloom. Firstly and most importantly, to someone considering a more active lifestyle please remember: you are in this for the long run! Plan with this knowledge in-mind. Thinking long-term gives you room to find a suitable environment or acclimatise to one that previously felt uncomfortable and importantly it gives you room to make mistakes. Making disgusting meals, working out at the wrong time etc will happen and unless you understand that your journey into fitness is a lifelong one these kinds of mishaps could easily cause derailment. I should stress as well the importance of taking time to find an environment that you feel comfortable in. I advise doing prior research and to speak to anyone you may know to ask them what that particular place is like. Getting to a gym need not be a huge plunge into the unknown.

As for setting goals, one thing I know a fair few people rely on is the concept of SMART goals. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time) I myself stand by this method of setting goals however one thing I would say is to be careful with the Time element. This is where we have to be a little honest with ourselves and think “given my condition, should I allow a little more time to accommodate any negative fluctuations in my mental health?” Setting a time-frame for a specific goal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in-fact it can add some important focus. It’s just important to be open and honest with yourself about what roadblocks you might encounter along the way and to ensure that they don’t derail you when or if they come about.

Building on from this, don’t be too harsh on yourself for missing a day, or two, or more. Take time, reflect on what caused you to miss these sessions. A huge part of self-care is looking at your actions and seeing them as they are, this includes being brutally honest but does not mean unnecessarily chastising yourself. At the end of the day we’re in this for the long run.

It may sound odd but remember to think about why you’re about to do this workout. Is the motivation coming from a healthy place? There have been times where I’ve gone to the gym with a piece from social media stuck in the back of my mind. What’s driven me on many an occasion is bubbling self-hatred that when left unchecked has caused me to spiral. Your reason for exercising should always come from a good place. 

There’s some bits of advice that I’ve been able to conjure-up based on my own experiences of trying to be fit whilst battling a mental illness. I’ll just finish on this: it isn’t impossible to reconcile mental illness and fitness. You absolutely are not disallowed from enjoying an active lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with having to miss a session due to poor mental health, and you absolutely can live a fit lifestyle that works within your means. Having a mental illness may place restrictions on how you live your life, but with a lot of flexible planning and some close care and reflection you can come to build your own fitness journey.

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