This is a guest post written by two medical students, Ella and Sophie. They started their own blog, MyMuscleMind, after using exercise as part of their recovery from mental illness. Since it’s conception in 2016, they have become extremely passionate about raising awareness of mental health conditions and the importance of physical activity in mental well-being.
Approximately one in four people are affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Such conditions can be hugely disabling, and yet the stigma surrounding them prevents many people from speaking out and getting help.
So, how did exercise help them with their recovery?
Ella: My personal mental health story began in my first year of University. A drastic change in setting and lifestyle, as well as obvious stresses associated with medical studies, triggered my developing of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A condition with a huge stereotypical perception made the thoughts and behaviours I was experiencing very difficult to understand. What I had previously believed to be a disorder that was simply limited to ‘clean freaks’ and people who washed their hands multiple times, the intrusive thoughts I was experiencing did not lead me to the conclusion that I had OCD. I started experiencing terrifying thoughts of harming others and these intrusive thoughts soon led to obsessive ruminations and associated compulsions, to try and alleviate my anxiety. It wasn’t until nearly a year later, that I became aware of what I was suffering from, which in comparison to other sufferers of OCD, is shockingly a very short amount of time. It is not unheard of for people with OCD to suffer for nearly 10 years before they seek help, due to fear, lack of understanding and embarrassment.
Despite the long period of time suffering in silence, the long waiting lists for therapy and inevitable antidepressant prescription, I began to get on track to my recovery. It was at this point that I found exercise and it brought a new light to my life. It wasn’t that I hadn’t exercised before, in fact, I was very sporty at school and had continued this into university, but I suddenly viewed fitness in a different light. I had always enjoyed staying fit, the competitive nature of sports, but I had never been aware of the importance of fitness on my mental state. When my therapist became aware that I enjoyed going on runs and attending fitness classes, she suggested that I focus on this as a method of what she referred to as ‘YOU TIME’. And so, in my desperate state to do anything that would make me feel better, I took this advice very much on board.
Exercise helped me focus on the present, allowed me to practise mindfulness, and showed me how strong my body could be. In a world that had felt hopeless not that long before, exercise suddenly brought me purpose and left me feeling on top of the world.In a world that had felt hopeless not that long before, exercise suddenly brought me purpose and left me feeling on top of the world.
Sophie: My relationship with exercise was complicated by my eating disorder.
My bulimia began in 2010 after a few stressful life events, and morphed into an anorexic subtype towards it’s peak around 2013-14, with associated anxiety, panic attacks and low mood. My path to recovery was long and definitely not linear. It involved lost referrals, cognitive behavioural therapy, fluoxetine (an antidepressant) and lots of help along the way, but along this journey exercise found a place as a part of my mental wellbeing routine.
As I said, exercise is complicated with eating disorders. For the first year of my ‘proper recovery’ I pretty much completely avoided intense cardio, as I didn’t want to use it as a method of purging. However, without the gym I found my anxiety levels would heighten, and my mood would drop. At this point I discovered all the other types of physical activity available, such as yoga, weights, and low intensity cardio such as a nice slow walk. Now I love how the gym gives me short and long term goals and achievements. It can be social, reflective or even just an excuse to get out of bed and leave the house.
Viewing exercise as ‘you time’ or even meditation became key in my recovery. I hope to show people what amazing things can happen when you exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it and want it to change.
How can you exercise in a way that leads to a happier mind?
Find something that you enjoy
Exercise doesn’t have to be limited to the gym so if you love the outdoors try planning some walks or bike rides in your area, with a friend or alone. Equally, there’s so much more to gyms than cardio machines and weights – try out some dance classes, yoga or kickboxing.
If you’re feeling low and suffering with a mental illness, starting an exercise regime can seem overwhelming and impossible, but it doesn’t have to be! Get off the bus a stop earlier on your way to work and enjoy a walk in the fresh air to start your day. Take 10 minutes to stretch before bed in the evenings. Set yourself SMART goals; Small, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding and Timely
When you’re exercising, FOCUS
Concentrate on each breath you take, the feeling of the air filling your lungs and then letting it go. As you stretch your muscles out, really think about what you’re doing and engage with what your body is telling you. Ignore the outside world and just focus on the present. Let those endorphins flow!
‘Exercise because you love your body and not because you hate it’ is probably one of our favourite quotes. Be thankful to your legs for carrying your body through whatever exercise you choose, celebrate your strong arms when you manage to lift a weight and praise your mind for motivating you to move.
Give yourself credit
Part of the reason exercise is associated with wellbeing is due to the ‘self-efficacy hypothesis’ whereby you start to believe in yourself and your ability to do things, so if you managed a 1o minute walk or stretched at the end of a long day then you definitely deserve some credit and self-appreciation!
We hope this article has given you a little insight into the part exercise has played in our journey to mental wellbeing and helped you get an idea of how to go about it!