Exercise Your Mental Health

Feb 22, 2022 | by Shaun Radford

Today, awareness of the importance of looking after our mental health is greater, and more widely discussed, than it has ever been. Already emerging from the shadows over the past decade or so, the effects of the global pandemic really cast the issue into the spotlight.

When governments flag the importance of regular daily exercise for mental as well as physical wellbeing, as many around the globe did during extended lockdowns, you know that the message the fitness industry has long been preaching is finally being heard by a wider audience. Here’s hoping that, as things return to some sort of normal, they don’t forget this important lesson.

Let there be no doubt: we all need to prioritise exercise and self care routines to support a healthy mindset.

What is mental health and mental illness?

These days we’re all pretty familiar with the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’, but how can we actually define these?

Put simply, our mental health is our state of wellbeing, the regulation of our moods and our ability to manage emotions. Mental illness comes about when we experience the inability to control these emotions for long periods of time, negatively impacting our lives.

For mental illness to eventuate, there doesn’t always need to be a ‘trigger’ – sometimes it can just occur. While this article focuses on the mental illnesses of depression and anxiety, it should be noted that mental health illnesses go beyond these and can encompass conditions as varied as substance abuse/dependency, trauma and psychosis.

Recognising issues

It is important to recognise when mental health issues arise. By doing so, you can take the appropriate measures to manage your mental health and live a fulfilling life alongside any mental illness or struggles you’re experiencing.

The stigma associated with mental illness has fallen dramatically in recent years. The topic is far more frequently discussed in mainstream media, and openly disclosed by high profile figures whose actions give rise to necessary conversations around mental health struggles. With more information, research and understanding, we can all play a part in our own – and others’ – mental wellbeing, and potentially prevent issues from becoming an illness in the first place. Historically, the stigma attached to mental illness has served only to exacerbate the challenge, as people battled in silence, ashamed to seek help. While this unhelpful legacy is not easily abandoned, it is to the credit of our society, and the advocacy of pioneers in this space, that we have made significant progress in a relatively short period of time. Today, most of us will be familiar with the excellent work of RUOK Day, Movember, The Black Dog Institute and Beyond Blue, to name but a few organisations that are doing incredible work in making mental wellbeing part of the everyday discourse. 

The most common types of mental illness are depression and anxiety, with 14.4% and 6.2% respectively reporting these issues each year in Australia. Additionally, 20% of the Australian adult population (between 16 and 85 years of age) reportedly experience any common mental illness each year.

Let’s consider these numbers for a moment. This means one in five Australians – or 3.2 million people – experience some form of mental illness in any one year (National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007).

When does our mental health become an issue? 

On any given day, we all experience events that can elicit all kinds of emotions, from joy, relief and excitement, to sadness, anger and anxiety, to name just a few. Experiencing these emotions does not become an issue unless some form of disruption occurs, causing an inability to effectively manage these feelings and associated situations.

This ‘disruption’ may be a change in a relationship, increased work/study commitments, loss of a loved one or massive environmental changes – like the 2020 pandemic. Without the ability to manage these emotions, we can become overwhelmed by them, resulting in further changes in emotions, interactions, relationships, work/study and our general outlook on life. 

What to do when emotions get overwhelming

Early intervention is the best practice for managing mental illness and working through mental health struggles. General Practitioners (GPs) are the best place to start if you need advice, and often the hardest part of this is booking the appointment. If possible, it can be very helpful to seek support from others close to you during this time.

Need someone to talk to?

Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis counselling, support groups and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 14, text on 0477 13 11 14 (12pm to midnight AEST) or chat online.

How exercise can help

Exercise in all forms releases endorphins and dopamine, our ‘feel good’ hormones. It can leave you with a clear mind, boosted mood, heightened concentration, increased self esteem and lowered stress levels – all valuable benefits for those suffering from depression and/or anxiety. 

The good news is, the exercise itself doesn’t have to be hard or fast! It doesn’t even need to be structured; any exercise is better than none at all. Experts recommend that adults should be active most days of the week, aiming for around 2.5 – 5 hours of moderate activity or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of strenuous activity per week; a minimum of 20 mins per day. Easy enough right? 

If injury or anxiety is holding you or your clients back from pounding the pavement or pumping iron in the gym, less intense options such as meditation, yoga and massage can achieve similar results in terms of improved overall wellbeing. Those who experience high levels of stress in their lives benefit greatly from these types of activities, as they allow them to slow down, reflect and ground themselves.

Helping our clients through mental health hurdles

As Personal Trainers and Massage Therapists, we will encounter clients with these concerns as we progress through our careers. This is in part due to the professional, yet personal relationship we often have with our clients; if they trust us, they will feel more comfortable opening up about the difficulties they are going through. If this happens, listen to them without judgement and then refer them to the most suitable allied health professional, which would likely be their GP in the first instance, or a therapist. It is important to remember what lies within our Scope of Practice as Personal Trainers: we can listen, we can refer, we can assist – but it is not our job to diagnose, give opinions or try to ‘cure’ our clients.

GP’s have the ability to diagnose, assess and refer clients to other allied health professionals, thereby helping them gain a better understanding of what they are experiencing. In Australia, GP’s have the ability to offer a mental health plan; this enables them to refer patients to a psychologist for up to 20 sessions in any one calendar year*, covered under Medicare. You will get an initial six sessions after which you will go back to your GP for a review of the plan. If deemed necessary, they can then refer you back for more sessions.

Mental Health First Aid

As fitness professionals we are often privy to our clients’ personal feelings, including insights into mental challenges they are experiencing. It is useful, therefore, to learn how to respond when you are confided in. If you want more information about, or training in, mental health awareness, support and assistance, Mental Health First Aid Australia (mhfa.com.au) is a great place to start.

MHFA Australia delivers evidence-based courses that help those who undertake them to increase their understanding of the complexities of mental health and create a safe environment for all involved. Operating in Australia since 2000, MHFA Australia has evolved and expanded its reach internationally as the demand for early intervention in this space has intensified. Just like physical first aid, mental first aid should also now be high on the recommended list of training for those who work in service industries.

At AIF, we proudly implement the use of accredited MHFA Officers throughout our campuses nationwide to assist both our students and staff on a daily basis. Additionally, AIF recognises the importance of mental health assistance and implements the use of its Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service through Uprise for every team member. This gives our staff the ability to assess their own mental health status and reach out for confidential assistance at any time, including coaching and counselling sessions.

We are at a point in time where, in much of the world, the taboo around mental health is being broken. There is no shame in recognising and seeking to manage challenges that we face with regards to emotional regulation. As fitness professionals we are well placed, when taken into the confidence of clients, to not only help them reap the mental health benefits of physical activity, but to guide them towards the additional assistance they may require. 

*Mental health plans changed the number of sessions during the 2020 pandemic and this number of sessions are valid until 30 June 2022.

Shaun Radford

Shaun Radford

Having worked and studied in the fitness industry in both New Zealand and Australia for over fourteen years, Shaun has held positions as a group exercise instructor, personal trainer, educator and mentor for personal trainers and training clients. With a passion for education and strong teams, Shaun revels in empowering future personal trainers and businesses to expand their minds and think differently. In recent years Shaun presents at conferences and for businesses on how to take their clients and teams to the next level, aiming for goals to be hit and client retention through inclusive practices and mental health support.

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Disclaimer: Where Certificate III in Fitness, Cert III/Cert 3, or Fitness Coach is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Fitness, Cert IV/Cert 4, or Personal Trainer is mentioned, it refers to SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Program™ is mentioned, it refers to Fitness Essentials and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Master Trainer Plus+ Program™ is mentioned, it refers to SIS30321 Certificate III in Fitness and SIS40221 Certificate IV in Fitness. Where Certificate IV in Massage or Cert IV/Cert 4 is mentioned, it refers to HLT42021 Certificate IV in Massage Therapy. Where Diploma of Remedial Massage is mentioned, it refers to HLT52021 Diploma of Remedial Massage.

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