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Exercise and mental health: why it is important

It is widely accepted that exercise can help your mental health, yet it is still very underused. It is a fact, ‘people with mental distress often have low levels of physical activity’.

As I embark on further training about this, it is becoming very apparent that we are a nation that still takes prescribed medication as the main form of treatment. Now, I'm not knocking medication for mental health issues at all and if you have to have medication, then you do.

Exercise however, is a very powerful tool to use in itself, or alongside medication or other treatments. But in 2009 only 5% of GPs in the whole country were using exercise as part of a treatment plan. This is despite 49% of GPs being actively aware of the fact that exercise services help people with a diagnosis of mild to moderate depression. This statistic may have improved in recent years and before the COVID-19 emergency came about, but I doubt it was a big change.

There could be many factors why it is only improving very slowly.

1. Firstly, the time constraints on our medical professionals. They only have 10 minutes per appointment, and depression and anxiety are not 10 minute issues. Therefore, it is easier to prescribe medication than to get to the real root of the issue.

2. People often want a quick solution/relief from the symptoms they are experiencing and therefore request medication from their GP.

3. There is not enough awareness in the medical and other health professional communities, of local exercise groups that can help people with mental health issues.

4. GPs and other health professionals need to know when a patient reaches the ‘right time for the right physical activity’. If the service is offered and the patient is not ready for exercise they will decline and it may never be discussed again.

5. If exercise goes alongside mental health support such as CBT or counselling, then GPs may add exercise on as well. The number of referrals to exercise may improve by up to 60% in these cases.

6. Many clients/patients may not want to exercise as it can seem too daunting. So lowering perceived demands and expectations to it just being about physical movement in the first instance may make it more manageable and achievable.

7. Very often there is a lack of a safe environment for people with a mental health condition to go and exercise in without feeling they are being judged, or being labelled with the ‘stigma’ of a mental health conditions, particularly in a gym setting.

What we have found at 1st Step Rehab Fitness and Support is that this isn’t a condition that stands alone. Most of our clients have other long-term physical health conditions alongside depression which is a secondary condition. When long-term pain is involved, low mood and depression often goes along with it.

So what is the solution?

1. If we were talking about 2 years ago, I would have said there was a stigma attached to having a mental health condition and you had to keep it hush hush and not discuss it. I feel that has changed, and recent figures show that 16% of people are now asking their GPs about exercise as a treatment, rather than waiting for the GP to suggest it. This is an extremely positive move forward.

2. Work with the client from the minute they show an interest. As a rehab fitness coach I will have had several conversations via phone or email before we meet. During the first few sessions, seeing that same supportive team member and seeing them consistently can help put them at ease.

3. Form friendships within the group you exercise with (buddy system). Often they are people in the same situation and can empathise with you. It also makes you accountable to someone else rather than just the coach and will make you want to stay with the exercise programme long term.

4. If you join an exercise community that specialises in physical and mental health conditions, before you know it, it becomes less about exercise and more about seeing your friends.

5. Smaller groups in a village or community hall rather than in big gyms is also recommended as it feels less daunting and like you are being judged.

As we are slowly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, this support is going to be needed more than ever, and this is where we can help.

1st Step Rehab Fitness and Support offers the solutions discussed here, and much more. We have helped many clients with depression and anxiety, and with very successful outcomes.

If you found this article useful and would like to know more, please contact Kamal on 07846 597460 or click on Contact Us in the menu.

We are currently running our service fully online for low impact and chair based exercise classes and 121 training.

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