Exercise

Mental health and exercise

Me on my bike

This week, we heard about a US study which apparently showed a link between exercise and improving one’s mental health.

“How marvellous” cry quite a few people who have been fortunate enough never to experience any sort of mental illness. “Here is proof” they go on to say “That lying around in bed all day is bad for you. Next time I meet someone who says they are depressed, I will tell them to go out for a jolly good walk. A bit of fresh air will blow the cobwebs away. After all, I always feel better after a walk/run/session with my personal trainer/ swim in the health club pool ” they remark helpfully.

Thank goodness for wise owls like Dr Dean Burnett who, while welcoming the study, reminds us of the likelihood and risks of overstating the findings, and of its limitations, such as that the participants self-reported their improved mental health, that most of them didn’t have a serious mental illness to start with, and that anyone with anything other than depression was excluded from the study.

Exercise can play a positive part in managing our mental health. But it’s not a magic cure-all. Here are some things I’d like anyone feeling excited by this study to do. And a few that I and others with similar experiences would prefer you not to do.

  1. Please read Dr Dean Burnett’s brief analysis here.

  2. Learn how depression is a physical illness and why exercising when you are having a severe episode can be very harmful here.

  3. Remember that prevention may be better than cure, but that to muddle the two is both dangerous and cruel. Imagine telling someone having chemotherapy just to eat more vegetables? It’s the same with mental illnesses (of which there are many) as with cancer. What helps us stay well is not an alternative to the treatment we need when we are poorly.

  4. Remember that many people who experience mental illness face other challenges which compound their situation, including poverty, insecure housing and post-traumatic stress. So please tread gently. Don’t make suggestions that seem obvious to you but may be daunting, even terrifying, or that they just can’t afford.

  5. Do all you can not to offer advice to your friend who seems be showing signs of mental illness. Instead, sit with them and just listen. Help them by showing that you care enough to stop whatever else you are doing and giving them your undivided attention. Be patient. Be courageous. Be quiet. Be there.

  6. IF they should decide that they want to try a bit of exercise, offer to walk, run or cycle beside them. Show them that you have their back.

Finally, in case you or anyone you know needs it, here is My Letter To You. 

Take it gently. This world is a tough old place.

Thank you.