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Using Fitness to Boost Mental Health

Reading Time: 5 minutes 21 seconds


Date: 2021-05-14T00:00:00-04:00

As fitness professionals, we understand how important health is. We've all seen what happens to people who don't exercise and eat properly in terms of the breakdown of the body and fundamental issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and adult-onset diabetes.

We're often very well versed in aspects of physical health and physical fitness. But the mental wellbeing components can sometimes slip past our notice. The best way to defend yourself against this is to know about mental health conditions, and how your clients might run into problems because of them.

Regular exercise alone isn't going to solve a person's mental health disorder. However, it is one component that can have a very positive effect on one's mental fitness and resilience, not to mention mood boosts from endorphins released during a workout.

But let's dig into some of the more common mental health disorders that you will encounter, if you haven't already.

Just remember that certified personal trainers are not qualified to diagnose or assess mental health issues. However, keeping an eye out for the signs can let you encourage a client experiencing mental health issues to seek professional medical services.

Mental Health and Mental Illness/Mental Disorder

Not everyone experiencing a mental health problem has actual mental illness. Mental illness is a diagnosed condition such as generalized anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and others.

Mental health, on the other hand, refers to people's emotional and psychological states. For instance, someone under a great deal of stress might be exhibiting signs of poor mental health without having a mental illness. However, prolonged periods of strained mental health can lead to mental illness.

There are all sorts of causes of poor mental health. For the purposes of a personal trainer, though, it's more important that you focus on identifying signs that a client might be having a tough time. The last thing you want to do is make a situation worse.

Clinical Depression

Depression is a mood disorder. It can cause regular sadness and general loss of motivation and interest in things they used to enjoy.

In addition to sadness and loss of interest, depressive symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Insomnia

  • Trouble focusing

  • Unexplained problems like backaches and headaches

There are many more possibilities as well. Watching for these symptoms that show up consistently, or in cycles, can be helpful.

It's also important to mention that clients suffering from mild and moderate depression can sometimes be confused with laziness or a lack of motivation. When those with the condition are then accused of these things, it can often make the depression worse. Furthermore, these can lead to severe depression, or Major Depressive Disorder.

Anxiety Disorders

The most common anxiety disorders are General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder.

Regardless of which your client may be experiencing, keeping an eye out for anxiety symptoms can be crucial as sometimes, anxiety attacks can hit without warning.

Symptoms include:

  • Extreme feelings of nervousness and tension

  • Faster than normal heart rate before exercising

  • Inability to control worry

  • Avoidance of triggers

If your client is feeling anxious, it's a good idea to keep things calm and simply check in with them to see how they're feeling. If they are particularly anxious before a session, it might be necessary to change the day's game plan to something a little less stressful, a little more predictable.

Also, anxiety and depression tend to go hand-in-hand.

Other Conditions

There are many more possible issues that you could encounter. It is up to you and your judgement to decide what you, as a trainer, can also contend with. It can be difficult and frustrating from an outside perspective.

Empathy is imperative at all times, but especially in the case of those suffering with mental health issues. Getting to know a client's triggers can be helpful in creating an atmosphere with as little anxiety as possible.

Remember that if your client feels safe to discuss their mental health with you, and you demonstrate awareness and adaptability, they will likely view their personal training sessions as a safe haven from the other things in life that exacerbate their condition.

This is a positive thing, because it turns out that fitness is a great tool to help individuals struggling with mental health issues.

How Exercising Can Make the Difference

Regular physical activity has many mental health benefits. Whereas working out alone likely won't suddenly fix a person's condition, it will go a long way to showing improvement.

In addition to the cognitive function benefits from exercise, the brain also becomes more resilient emotionally. Exercise of any sort can have a positive impact, regardless of fitness level. So, for those suffering from mental health issues, what is the best exercise program?

The Bottom Line is Get Moving!

Anxiety and depression can really cause a person to stop in their tracks. They could be completely fit, eat all the right foods, drink plenty of water, get plenty of sleep, and still have issues keeping to an exercise routine.

This is where your knowledge as a personal trainer comes in. What you want to do is reduce the barriers to clients exercising. You should communicate with your clients and find out what they enjoy. If they're already battling their own mental health, you don't want them battling cumbersome workouts that they don't enjoy—unless, of course, cumbersome workouts are what they love!

Adapting Clients Exercise Plans

Sometimes, clients might just need to go on a long walk instead of a focused workout. This can be a great opportunity.

For one thing, it allows them time outside and moving. This increases the dopamine levels in the brain, which are responsible for feeling pleasure, the ability to plan, think, and function normally. Getting the body moving, and doing so outdoors if possible, will help boost this from the beginning.

Then, as they ease into the walk, you could even stop at particular intervals to do various calisthenic exercises, if they feel up to it. Try to read their feelings in situations like these. The mental benefits of even this basic adaptation can be huge.

If they're still okay with doing a more focused workout though, try to incorporate what they enjoy. If they like to lift weights, do a basic lifting regimen that they can really sink their stress into. If they prefer aerobic exercise, try to find one that keeps their mind engaged.

Exercise is nice because once they start doing it and feel the positive energy, likely they will continue. Working out can be an incredible boon to the mood, and you should never take that for granted.

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy...

When it comes down to it, one of the most frustrating components of mental health problems is that they are invisible. A person can appear perfectly healthy yet have an issue that prevents them from succeeding.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between people who need a firm hand and those who need you to lay off a little bit. This is where emotional intelligence and communication come into the picture.

This is another reason that you need to really get to know your clients. Make them feel comfortable and allow them to be vulnerable. If you have had personal experiences with mental health issues, be it your own or someone close to you, you might try sharing.

Mental health is an essential component of overall wellness. Unfortunately, it still faces many stigmas to this day. The best way to move forward is with empathy and compassion—treating others as you would want to be treated.

Sign up for the ISSA's Transformation Course to learn the skills needed to affect a qualitative shift in client behavior. Topics covered include the stages of behavioral change, motivational interviewing, positive psychology, commitment strategies, flow, and the experience sampling method. Help your clients improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being by getting started today!

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As a Transformation Specialist you will be armed with the skills and techniques required to truly coach and influence behavioral patterns as they relate to your clients physical, mental and emotional well-being. With this skill, your clients will see better results quicker and have an easier time with the transition to the behaviors and activities you suggest.

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