Can The Gym Help Your Mental Health?

Mental health is a concept we’re all much more familiar with today than at any point in living memory. We’ve all heard endless amounts about the dangers of anxiety & depression, and many of us have suffered from one or both of these at some point in our lives. If you’re battling something like this right now, that may have even been the motivation for you clicking on this article.

Despite all the awareness weeks, pleas to reach out and campaigns by TV channels, mental health remains a massive challenge for an almost overwhelming amount of people in this country. The Office For National Statistics reports a reasonably consistent tally of deaths by suicide year on year (just under 5000), which is a tragically high number for people who, in the most part, would have had many decades left to live.

The mental health charity Mind reports that in England, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some sort every year – and 1 in 6 will experience a mental health problem every week. I could definitely count myself in the former of those statistics.

I draw attention to facts and figures like these not to paint a bleak picture, but to highlight that although it’s awesome we’ve started to talk more about mental health issues, clearly we haven’t got to grips with helping people deal with this as a society yet.

One thing that often comes up in relation to helping with mental health issues is going to the gym. Going to the gym is often spoken about in miraculous terms – with almost religious tones. Looking at some of the horrendous memes on Instagram, you’d think “on the third day, God created dumbbells” was written in the Bible. Now, the gym, and exercise in general can have some really positive effects on your state of mind (both short and long term), but before we get into the meat of this article I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear: Thinking that lifting weights can “solve” a mental health issue is at best deluded, and at worst dangerous.

Again, this isn’t me dismissing the gym or telling you to avoid it at all costs (as a body composition coach, that would be a pretty bad business move), but I want to paint an honest picture about what the gym can and can’t do for you as part of a larger strategy to help your mental health.

Final point before we dive in – you might be wondering who in God’s name I think I am to be talking about mental health on the internet. That’s a fair question. I have no formal qualifications in psychotherapy or psychology (although I am studying). What I do have, though, is 8 years’ experience working one-on-one in gyms with hundreds of real people with real problems from across South Yorkshire. Add this to my own anecdotal experience of training in gyms and working through my own mental health struggles over the last 12 years, and I feel I have a few insights to share on this topic. So, let’s start with the positives…

The Benefits Of The Gym For Mental Health

I know I’ve spent the last couple of paragraphs being a little sarcastic and dick-ish about the gym. But in actuality, the gym can be a pretty great resource in your arsenal to improve your mental (and physical) health. Here’s a few of the things the gym can do you for you:

1. A Healthy Outlet For Aggression

I don’t care who you are – we all get angry. Frustrated. Pissed off. Fed up. And those emotions don’t just dissipate into the atmosphere if you ignore them long enough, they come out and manifest themselves one way or another. Often this can be through snapping at our loved ones, being passive-aggressive, calling someone a muppet in traffic or really harsh, critical self-talk. The point here is, if you don’t give your aggression a healthy and constructive way to express itself, it will likely manifest itself in an unhealthy and destructive way.

So, as part of a well-controlled, strategic workout programme, some controlled aggression is not only permissible, it’s necessary. I’ve spoken in podcasts, blogs, YouTube videos and online courses about the need to attack your set aggressively to get the most out of your workouts for physique development, but this is a crucial point for your mental health too.

Aggression, or anger, isn’t a bad emotion. It’s normal and human. But it needs an outlet that isn’t destructive, and the gym or physical exercise can give you the perfect option for just that.

2. A Feeling Of “Aiming Upwards”

Feeling stagnant, stuck, or like you have nothing to move towards in life can be a soul-destroying position to be in. We are progression machines – we need something to move towards. Something to get us out of bed in the morning, something to feel proud to have accomplished when we go to sleep at night. This feeling of “forward motion” can help us to make sense of our lives and the world around us. It can keep us balanced.

Now, clearly, I’m not saying the gym can be the only answer to these questions. But it’s a start. When you have a definite goal, for example, a physique goal of building muscle or losing body fat, and you see yourself progressing towards that goal through your own hard graft – that’s an incredibly powerful way to improve your attitude towards yourself. All of a sudden you’re the type of person that takes looks after themselves, the type of person that doesn’t quit on themselves and the type of person that has what it takes to see a goal through to the end. If you think this doesn’t have a carry over to other areas of life, you haven’t thought very deeply into it.

3. The Mind-Body Connection

Despite the treatment of the mind and the body as two separate entities by the medical system and society at large, there is an undeniable connection between the mind and the body. What we do to one, affects the other. The most important aspect of this (in my opinion) when it comes to the gym, is the idea of resilience.

The modern world can be stressful, and at times, exhausting to navigate. Building some mental resilience can be a really useful tool. There are a plethora of ways to do this, but building physical resilience is a simple way to start. Getting yourself into the gym, putting your body through discomfort in pursuit of a larger goal is a great way to cement discipline and resilience into your psyche. The act of continuing to do the required work – showing up to the gym – regardless of whether you feel like it (and trust me, many days you won’t feel like it) is in itself an act of great resilience. The carryover this has to the rest of life is undeniable, and can make you less susceptible to whatever stresses or strains life may throw at you on a daily basis.

4. Improved Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is a massive part of determining how we act both in the world and towards ourselves. A lack of self-confidence can prevent us from pursuing things we want (because we think we aren’t good enough/deserving enough to get them).

Using the gym as a tool to help develop the way our bodies look, feel and move, can help to skyrocket our self-confidence. We lose weight, we fit into tighter fitting clothes, we’re more comfortable in social situations, we feel better about ourselves. This increase in confidence bleeds over into job prospects – we can feel more inclined to ask for that payrise, apply for a better job or start a business.

Self-confidence also positively affects our relationships. If we’re feeling low about ourselves this can often have a negative impact on our significant other, and vice-versa. When both parties work on themselves and bring the best possible version to the relationship, both people benefit and the relationship flourishes.

The Drawbacks Of The Gym For Mental Health

Now we’ve been through some of the mental health benefits you can get from regular gym attendance, let’s talk about something that isn’t so widely discussed: the drawbacks.

I don’t draw attention to these drawbacks to discourage you from using the gym. I think the gym is a fantastic tool. But, I want to paint a realistic picture of some of the pitfalls I’ve seen many people fall into (and have fallen into myself) over the years when it comes to using the gym for your mental wellbeing.

1. Papering Over The Cracks

Have you ever seen those memes that say something like “I’ve got 99 problems but I’m going to the gym and ignoring them all”? That’s a real thing and people do it all the time. I am personally very guilty of doing this – so I can say from experience that whilst the gym is a useful tool, it can’t deal with the root cause of whatever’s causing you mental distress.

Drinking alcohol to knock yourself out at night gives the illusion of sleep. But it isn’t sleep, it’s sedation. You wake up feeling groggy and ill-rested because you didn’t properly sleep. In a similar way, going to the gym can give the illusion of addressing mental health concerns. It doesn’t. It can help you deal with them, but no one ever healed from past trauma or mental anguish through bicep curls alone. A larger strategy is needed, and at the end of this article we’ll go through some of the other tools you can use to help improve your mental wellbeing.

2. The Body Image/Self-Worth Attachment

Earlier I mentioned that the gym, and changing your body image, can give you a massive increase in self-confidence. But self-confidence is very easy to conflate with self-worth.

It’s incredibly common for people to use their perception of the way their body looks as a proxy for their value as a person. If you feel out of shape, overweight or undesirable, you start to mentally beat yourself up and feel “less than” someone who you perceive to be in better shape.

Now, this mindset isn’t exclusive to the gym – it’s common to see with financial status, relationship status, friend circles, the things you own… the list goes on. But seeing as we’re talking about the gym, I’m going to focus in on the body image issue.

Social media hasn’t helped this problem. Now we’re bombarded with heavily filtered and photoshopped pictures of the most incredible physiques, under the best lighting, from the best angles, and immediately we realise we don’t measure up to that perfect image on our phones.

When we compare ourselves to these perfect images, we beat ourselves up for not living up to that impossible standard. As Theodore Roosevelt said – “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

My point here is twofold. Firstly, these social media images are mostly the “highlight reel” of someone’s body. There are substantially more pictures of people looking their best on social media than pictures of them looking their worst (not to mention the pictures are often edited, filtered, likely taken when the person was at their leanest, possible drug use). All of this means that you comparing yourself – who you see at your best, worst, and everything in between, to a carefully selected image you’ve seen on the internet, is ridiculous. Stop it. Your only competition is your previous self, not someone else’s current self.

Secondly, and I honestly can’t stress this enough, your worth as a person is not dependent on how your physical body looks. Read that again, let it sink in and reflect on it. You are worth the same whether you’re ripped with abs or 200lbs overweight and chugging down liquidised pizzas out of blenders sixteen times per day. My advice if you want to be happy is to look after your physical body the best you can, and it’s not bad or egotistical to want a good physique. But it does not define you as a person, and if you’ve stopped the gym and put some weight on recently that doesn’t make you a failure or less of a person.

3. Frustration From A Lack Of Results

Sometimes, when you don’t have the right knowledge, experience or person helping you, you don’t see any results from the work you’re putting into the gym. The reasons for this can vary and are very context dependent, but the end result is that you get frustrated, annoyed, possibly blame yourself and ultimately, quit.

If there’s one fundamental truth I’ve learned from the last eight years of coaching normal, everyday people, it’s that progress motivates. Once a person sees the fruits of his labour, and can understand that the hard work he’s putting in is paying off, he’s more likely to continue doing it.

However, if you don’t see those tangible results in the first few weeks, it’s probably going to be quite hard to stay motivated using willpower alone. No one wants to go to the gym for the sake of going to the gym. If we didn’t get anything out of it, we wouldn’t go. So if you are using the gym as a tool for your mental health, set a programme or approach up that gives you a high probability of getting results (and sustaining those results). That will keep you motivated to keep going, and getting the psychological benefits from using the gym.

The Bigger Picture Strategy

So, if you’re still with me, at this point we have a bit of an insight into the potential positive impact the gym can have on your mental health, and some of the dangers to be avoided.

However, now we need to zoom out for a second understand the context in which the gym can be a useful tool for your mental wellbeing. We need to formulate the bigger picture strategy for maintaining a good state of mind. For the remainder of this article, I’ll suggest some of the ways I’ve found useful for both myself and clients to look after their psychological health. You may like to try some of these, you may think others are absolute bollocks. I’m not here to give orders, my only hope is that you take what is useful and discard what isn’t.

So, without further ado, here are a few strategies you can use alongside going to the gym to help improve your mental health:

1. Counselling/Talk Therapy

In my opinion, this is the number one starting point for addressing mental health issues. Personally, since hiring a coach, I now have weekly meetings to talk through the things going on in my life and figure out the best way to deal with them and this has proved invaluable. Knowing I have that trusted person there to go to when shit hits the fan and I don’t have to figure it all out on my own is like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’ve been working with my coach for just over a year now, and the changes in my limiting self-beliefs, my opinion of myself and the results I’m getting in my life are staggeringly better. Without a doubt, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made was hiring a good coach (with money I couldn’t really afford to lose at the time).

Now, not everyone will have the financial means or access to a coach or counsellor. I get that. An alternative would be to talk to a trusted friend or family member, who you know won’t judge you, talk about you behind your back or try to wade in and “save the day”. You need someone to listen to you, not to save you.

2. Sleep

Sleep is the main source of recovery for the body & brain. While monumental discoveries have been made in the field of sleep research over the last few decades, there’s still a lot we don’t know about what happens when we sleep. What is clear, however, is that a lack of sleep can be devastating to your physical and mental health.

We could go down the scientific route here and discuss the studies linking poor sleep to mental health problems, but I’ll leave you to do the research if you want to go down that rabbit hole. For now I’ll stick to common sense and anecdotal evidence – when you have a poor night’s sleep (or several), are you more or less pleasant to be around? Are you more or less irritable, stressed and moody? The answers to these questions are obvious. Focusing on improving the quality of your sleep and the amount of time you’re asleep is critical to ensuring your mental health is in a good place.

For tips on how to improve your sleep, you can read my sleep article here.

3. Nutrition

This is ridiculously huge topic that warrants whole books – not just blog articles, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Whilst I won’t go into specifics here (as the topic is so broad and so fiercely debated), suffice to say that if you eat inflammatory foods at all hours of the day and night, you can expect to feel sluggish, lethargic, low energy, have poor sleep and probably experience a whole host of other detrimental symptoms.

Be mindful of what you put into your body, what times you consume those foods and how it makes you feel after you’ve eaten it. These things do matter and can be the difference between feeling pretty good and losing control.

To read an article on nutrition, click here.

4. Journaling

This is a bit of a turn-off for a lot of people but quite honestly, this has been a game changer in my life for the last six months or so. Journaling, as I define it, is the act of getting your thoughts onto paper at the end of each day. A sort of mental review of the day, to make sense of the chaos that we all go through on a daily basis, and to stop the mind spiralling out of control over something that isn’t that important.

I have a dedicated notepad that I keep beside my bed with a pen (that I enjoy writing with – that’s a more important consideration than you’d think). Then, each night before I turn out the light to sleep, I write a page or two about what happened that day, what thoughts I had that bothered me and what advice I’d give to someone else in my position. This takes maybe ten minutes before bed and has really turned some bad days around for me.

Sometimes, once you see the problems that seem so big in your mind written out on paper in front of you, they lose their power. You see them for what they really are, and you can deal with them. When it’s just going around and around in your head, it can end up being blown way out of proportion and cause some real issues for you.

5. Meditation

The final tactic in your mental health arsenal I’ll mention here (although there are certainly more you can use) is meditation. Again, this is something that many people turn their noses up to, but in my experience this can really help to calm the mind and stop the frantic pace of thoughts.

In short, meditation for me is simply the act of noticing the thoughts you’re having and not reacting to them. You might sit quietly and focus on your breath, or the space around you, and inevitably your mind will start to wander. That’s perfectly normal, and your only job then is to acknowledge whatever you’re thinking about and return back to your focus. Meditation is a practice, meaning you won’t feel like you’re a master at it from day one. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

For me, this has been responsible for making me a way less reactive person. When something happens that pisses me off, I’m much less likely to flip out and get angry or produce some kind of destructive emotional reaction. I can take a step back, breathe, and act in a more appropriate way.

My recommendation for starting with meditation is using the Headspace app, or looking into the work of Dr Joe Dispenza.

Wrapping Up

So to conclude this rather lengthy article, I hope I’ve made my point that although the gym can be a very useful tool for mental health, it certainly shouldn’t be relied upon in isolation. As part of a bigger strategy to look after your body and mind it can be awesome – but being aware of the pitfalls is really important before you start.

I hope now you have a better understanding of how the gym can help you psychologically, and maybe even have some fresh ideas for the other things you can do to improve your mental health.

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, please feel free to share it with a friend.

Thanks and speak soon

Andy Clements