Mental Health In Fitness
Mental health, while it has been demonised and ridiculed for generations, now seems to be the topic on everyone’s lips. It’s no surprise to log on to a social media site nowadays and see people posting updates regarding mental health. However, one thing I have noticed is that while people are more willing to talk about mental health in general, there is a distinct lack of action that actually makes any difference.
That isn’t me trying to have a dig at all – I think the fact people are starting to accept mental health as an actual important issue on the same level as physical health is fantastic – but simply copying and pasting “It’s OK not be OK” onto your Facebook status might not be enough to help someone in deep trouble. Not, of course, that I’m expecting to miraculously help people by simply writing an article, but the more people actually addressing this issue and taking it seriously the better, right?
Now, what I want to delve into in this piece is the affect that the fitness industry can have on your mental health – something I’ve experienced and seen too many others go through as well. But in order to understand the fitness industry, I think we need to take a look at the problem systemically as a nation.
According to the Office for National Statistics (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2016registrations), there were almost 6000 deaths in the UK from suicide in 2016. That is down 3.6% from 2015 but it’s still way to high, as I’m sure you’d agree. It’s also worth noting that over three quarters of this population were male.
With this not insignificant amount of people in our country taking the tragic choice to take their own life, it’s not hard to figure out that the amount of people struggling and fighting mental health battles is far from small.
Now, as for the causes or the way we go about preventing this, it’s not really for me to say. I’m not claiming to be a psychologist or know anything at all about the way the mind works – I’m just trying to highlight my experiences and what I’ve observed in my limited time on earth and hopefully give some insight into how I’ve dealt with things. With that in mind, let’s move on to focus at the way things are in the fitness industry, and in particular in relation to the way people look.
Social Media & Self Comparison
Let’s start with the place we all spend way too much time – social media. Social media is the central hub for all things self comparison and low self esteem. Don’t get me wrong – social media in itself isn’t a bad thing. It keeps us connected, allows me to effectively market my business and help many more people and makes it easier to reach out to people that can help you in many areas of life. But the downside is massive, if you let it get to you.
The thing about social media is that it’s everyone’s highlight reel. Have you ever seen anyone intentionally post a ‘bad’ shot online? Very rarely – at least unless they’re trying to highlight the point I’m making now. Most people post up the shots of their physique where they’re in the perfect light, have the perfect angle, with the carefully chosen filter to make it look as best it can. And that’s fine.
See, it’s not really any of your business what other people choose to post online. Self comparison with other people is literally one of the most backwards things you can do. Let me state the obvious that seems to be apparently not obvious to a lot of people: YOU ARE NOT THEM.
Whoever is posting things that causes you to feel bad about yourself has absolutely nothing to do with you, your life, your goals or aspirations. It’s about as far away as anything could possibly be. Think about it for a second. Have you considered how long this person has been training? Maybe they have great genetics? Maybe they edited the shot? What if they take gear? Maybe – and this might seem shocking – maybe they just f*cking work harder than you do?
The point is, we don’t know. And we don’t need to know. When you see a great physique on social media – be inspired. Don’t feel down about it, feel damn happy for that person that they’re seeing some reward for the absolute graft they’ve been putting in.
To borrow a quote from Dr Jordan Peterson, Canadian psychologist and author of ’12 Rules For Life’:
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who somebody else is today.
Read that line again, it’s really f*cking powerful.
Comparing oneself to others is not only stupid it’s irrelevant to anything in our life. A much better idea would be to compare your current self to your former self. Then you get a clearer picture of whether you’re actually moving forward or not. If you can be just 1% better than you were yesterday, every day, then by this time next year you’ll be in a hell of a place with your physique. Use that as motivation, not what some guy is doing on Instagram.
Believe It Or Not, Training Should Be A Positive Experience
Ever scroll through Facebook and see those daft little fitness memes making out as though lifting dumbbells around for an hour is the equivalent of finding the cure for cancer or climbing mount Everest with one leg and an umbrella? Yeah, they piss me off, too.
Now, look. I go off on rants online a lot about the need for intensity and not bitching out in the gym and all things testicular fortitude. But let’s be real right now – we’re not going into battle for Queen and Country. We’re going to try and get in better shape, maybe get a bit stronger and fitter. It’s not life or death.
The end result – or rather the ongoing results – of training should be to improve your quality of life in some way, big or small. When it boils down to it and you strip away all the superficial bullshit, that’s why I do my job (and it’s why I train, too). For the majority of people, having a better physique makes them feel more confident and better about themselves. This usually spurs a better love life, more productivity at work, more energy to spend with family and friends, and a general increased zest for life. I’m not saying if you gain muscle you become some kind of meathead hippie – but it’s hard not to see those benefits if you make real progress.
So then why – please somebody tell me why – do we take ourselves so f*cking seriously all the time? Like really, why are we steaming in the gym knocking over anyone who gets in the way of the dumbbell rack when we’re trying to make our lives better? Is stomping around being all angry making your life better? Or is it making you more pissed off?
Don’t get me twisted. I’m not saying you gotta turn the gym into a social club and make everyone your best friend. But you don’t have to be an angry dick, either. Enjoy the process, lose yourself in the focus of building muscle but don’t stray over the line of being so overly hyped up you headbutt a squat rack and end up in A&E. Last time I checked severe head trauma wasn’t good for your mental health. But like I said, I’m no expert.
No Matter How Well You’re Doing, You’ll Always See Flaws In Yourself – And That’s OK
Why did you start training? If you’re anything like me – and all the other people that go to the gym on a daily basis – it’s because you weren’t happy with the way you looked. You saw flaws in your image and wanted to change them. Now don’t get me wrong, I get the whole ‘body positivity’ thing. If you want to be a fat bastard then more power to you to be quite honest (though please don’t try to convince me that you’re ‘healthy’).
But body positivity aside, it’s generally a good thing that you saw those flaws. Because if you’ve been training a while and seen some progress, you’re likely much happier with you body than you were.
It’s human nature to look at ourselves and want to be better. We look at our bank accounts and want to see a bigger number. We look at our houses and want to see a bigger space. We look at our cars and want to see newer, flashier motors. We do the same thing with our bodies. This is clearly an unhealthy habit, when obsessed over. Sacrificing everything to get a better car, house, bank balance – it’s not going to make you happy on it’s own. But if we never strived for better, no one would achieve anything and nothing would ever get done. We see the negatives first for a reason, and it helps us continually keep improving.
However – and further to the above point – we mustn’t allow ourselves to become emotional about our flaws and shortcomings. If we see an area we want to improve, that’s fantastic. We have just discovered an opportunity to make ourselves better. We now should be excited about getting to work finding out exactly how we can make that area better.
In contrast, though, what most people do in this situation is crumble. They get emotional about the fact they have an area of imperfection and feel like they’re less of a human being because of it. Compound this with the self comparison I talked about earlier and you’ve got a recipe for one miserable motherf*cker. Don’t fall into that trap.
Appreciate your successes. Whenever you do well in something, notice it and celebrate it quietly to yourself. Give yourself the proverbial pat on the back and acknowledge your hard work. Equally, acknowledge the areas that need improvement. Don’t beat yourself up about them, but use them as motivation to make yourself better. Remember the Peterson quote: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who somebody else is today”. Find the successes and the areas that you improved since yesterday. Use your shortcomings to make tomorrow better.
I hope this article was useful in some small way. I know I’m no expert on mental health but I have a fair amount of experience in the psychology of getting in better shape, and hopefully these short and admittedly somewhat undeveloped thoughts I’ve spoken about today at least spark some thought of your own.
You’re not alone, if you struggle with anything raised in this piece. Everything I’ve spoken about I’ve not only seen other people go through but I’ve gone through myself a hundred times and still battle with to this day. Shit happens. We’re all in the same boat, and if we can help each other instead of tearing each other down, we’ll all get to where we want to be a little faster, with no casualties along the way. Mental health matters.
You’re doing great. Keep smashing it.
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PS – Enjoy this article? Why not check out this one I wrote on Stress And It’s Impact On Your Physique?