ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Using Fitness to Boost Mental Health

10 Ways Exercise Boosts Mental Health and Personal Development

Reading Time: 10 minutes


Date: 2023-02-03

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.

10 Ways Exercise Benefits Personal Development and Mental Health

Regular physical activity has many mental health benefits. Simply working out likely won't suddenly fix a person's condition, but it will go a long way toward a more positive trend. 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, we asked 10 people how exercise benefits personal development and mental health. Here are their responses:

  • Trains You to Face Your Inner Critic

  • Reduces Anxiety

  • Helps Cope with Stress

  • Releases Endorphins

  • Improves Self-Esteem and Body Image

  • Is the Foundation for Recovery

  • Gives a Better Night’s Sleep

  • Enhances Your Memory

  • Encourages Success

  • Provides Consistent Growth

Trains You to Face Your Inner Critic

There is nothing like a few steps into that first mile where that voice in your head will say things like, "See, I told you this was not a good idea. We aren't that far from home; you can turn around." Because you set the intention of running a mile (or more), you will not turn around until you complete what you set out to do. 

Over time, this voice quiets and does not reemerge until you challenge yourself with the next longer distance. Exercise forces mental fortitude. This inner critical voice emerges again as we go into the world and take chances: "Who are you to lead this group?" 

If we have not built the mental muscles to overcome this voice and proceed anyway, the story could end there. We remain stuck in life and bound by the inner critic. Exercise is a very tangible way to prove to yourself over and over that you can do it; you are more than capable of anything you set your intention to do.

Elisha Peterson, Anesthesiologist & Pain Medicine Physician

Reduces Anxiety

Exercise is a safe and efficient natural anxiety cure. The release of endorphins reduces anxiety and stress, increases mental and physical vitality, and improves overall well-being. Exercise can decrease symptoms of depression and ADHD, among other ailments. 

Any activity that keeps you moving might be helpful, but paying attention instead of drifting off can have a greater positive impact. For instance, try to pay attention to the sound of your feet on the ground, your breathing pattern, or the sensation of the wind on your skin when exercising. You will not only be in better physical shape faster by incorporating this mindfulness component into your workouts, but you will also be able to stop your mind from racing with anxieties all the time. 

Overall, the benefits of exercising are quite many, and we all know it. So find something that you enjoy and stick to it! Your body will thank you for it sooner than later.

Peter Bryla, Community Manager, ResumeLab

Help Cope with Stress

One way that regular exercise benefits personal and mental health is by reducing stress. Exercise reduces the body's stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. By exercising regularly, you are allowing your body a way to cope with and reduce stress. Stress can be both mental and physical. Regular exercise can be your mental and physical way to cope with stress and handle it in a healthy manner!

Macy Westlund, Wellness Expert, Macy Michelle

Releases Endorphins

Regular exercise can help with personal development and mental health in a variety of ways. One way is that it increases endorphins, the hormones responsible for producing feelings of happiness. Exercise releases these hormones, providing an overall boost to your mood and helping you cope better with stress. It also improves self-esteem by giving a sense of accomplishment after completing a challenging workout.

Erik Pham, CEO, Health Canal

Improves Self-Esteem and Body Image

When we engage in physical activity, our bodies release endorphins, which are chemicals that promote feelings of happiness and well-being. This can lead to a boost in confidence and self-worth, which can translate into other areas of life, such as work, relationships, and personal goals.

Exercise can also help to reduce stress and anxiety, which can be major roadblocks to personal development. It provides an outlet for pent-up energy and tension, helping to clear the mind and create a sense of calm and balance. Exercise also has been shown to improve cognitive function and memory, which can help with problem-solving and decision-making skills, both of which are essential for personal development.

Brian Clark, Founder, United Medical Education

Is the Foundation for Recovery

Regular exercise serves as a foundation for recovering from mental health challenges. Everyone has their highs and lows, and not everyone responds to the lows in the same way. Exercise provides overall higher energy and confidence to handle such challenges than without a baseline of physical activity. 

Regular exercise is also proven to help with achieving a healthy sleep schedule, which has numerous benefits felt during waking hours. While mental health struggles can vary, regular exercise can only help, not hurt, to recover from them for many reasons.

Karden Rabin, Co-Founder, CFS School

Gives a Better Night’s Sleep

I would say that after a poor night's sleep, we've all awoken on the "wrong side of the bed," where we can become grouchy, irritated, and lose our temper. Long-term sleep deprivation has also been linked to sadness and anxiety, among other mental health issues. 

Our ability to sleep better with regular exercise supports brain health. Exercise causes our bodies to create feel-good chemicals that can lessen pre-sleep anxiety and certain common sleep issues like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome. In order to aid in our recovery from mental effort, exercise can also enhance the duration of deep sleep we get.

Rene Delgado, Founder & CEO, Shop Indoor Golf

Learn more: Are Your Bad Sleeping Habits Hurting Your Health?

Enhances Your Memory

I would say that by making our hearts pound and staying active, we can keep our brains sharp. When we engage in regular physical activity, our hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning, really grows. 

Exercise changes the brain as we age to preserve our memory and cognitive abilities. Studies have shown that resistance, aerobic or strength exercises and mind-body exercises can enhance the cognitive and functional health of older people's brains.

Nick Edwards, Managing Director, Snowfinders

Encourages Success

Take a long look at those who have been successful in business. How many of them look like they're indifferent about exercise and nutrition? Almost none. They make time to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It's what they need to do to relieve stress and keep their minds sharp. Every corporate center has a gym. Every successful business person seemingly has one or more physical activities that they rank as a favorite hobby, whether it's yoga, biking, or training for an upcoming triathlon. 

It's not just part of their DNA; it's part of what makes them successful. Fitness should always be a part of your daily routine, and it should be the part of the day that you most look forward to. It keeps your mind clear and your body slim. Consumption of healthier foods also keeps energy levels high, and that's extremely important. Mostly everyone who is successful in business understands that.

Juan Pablo Cappello, Co-Founder & CEO, Nue Life

Provides Consistent Growth

Regular exercise benefits personal development and mental health through small growth and achievement over time. The work you put in consistently leads to results such as looking better, feeling better, and getting stronger/faster, or both. Overall, this leads to an increase in confidence and self-esteem, which carries over into other realms of life. 

Nick Varga, Chief Riding Officer, ERide Journal

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 to get moving. This increases the dopamine levels in the brain, which are responsible for feeling pleasure, and 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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