How to exercise while looking after your mental health

From gentle stretches to a 10k run, exercise is often presented as a quick fix in times of poor mental health. But while it’s helpful for some, it’s important to recognise that physical activity isn’t the best remedy for everyone, so do it your way. By reframing exercise’s benefits to include neurological, hormonal and societal gains, and viewing it as only one part of a wider approach to mental health, it’s possible to avoid the pitfall of the exercise-as-a-one-size-fits-all cure. Counselling psychologist Christine Kritzas and Smriti Josh, lead psychologist at online coaching service Wysa, talk us through how to adopt a mental health-led approach to exercise…

Illustrations: Eleanor Hardiman
Words: Hope Talbot

How to reframe exercise to follow your values

One way to reframe ideas of exercise is through the idea of values-driven living. As Christine says, this means ‘living a life that is guided by our values’. In this sense, you use those things you value to guide your long-term decision making. This is instead of rules-driven living, which dictates strict rule-setting, with little or no margin for error. Used in relation to exercise, the former allows you to think long term, rather than forcing you to stick to a routine or rush to a solution. This allows for gradual progress in both mental and physical wellbeing.

What are some strategies for maintaining motivation?

When exercise is framed as a chore or necessity, it’s easy to forget that it’s supposed to be enjoyable. Consider those physical activities that bring you pleasure or joy. They could, for example, include childhood pursuits – think about exercises you enjoyed when you were little. Another way is to explore any individual movements that feel good in your body. Pursuing delight in movement, rather than feeling tied to a routine, can foster a healthier approach to exercise.

When experiencing poor mental health, it can be difficult to focus on anything beyond that. Sometimes– and for some people – thinking about physical sensations and the actual feeling of the body can distract and motivate. Kirstie Fleetwood Meade, a counselling psychologist, coach and embodied yoga teacher, suggests connecting with your senses as part of your exercise routines: ‘Try naming things you can see around you. See what you can hear, notice feeling the warmth or cool, see if there are any smells, even feeling the ground on your feet.’ Through this physical focus, it’s possible to bring a separation of mind and body, which makes it easier to enjoy the movements.

Small movements make a big difference and, says Christine, they should be valued as progress: ‘Even if it’s just going for a five-minute walk, it’s still something. Even if you just put on your exercise gear and walk to the end of your driveway and back, you’re still showing up for yourself. So just show up.’

Using exercise as a way of connecting with others and yourself

During difficult emotional periods, reaching out to a friend or relative is vital. But it can feel daunting, especially if your familial or social circle holds negative views about mental ill-health. Smriti suggests that using exercise as a prerequisite for social time can help you connect with others in new ways. This also allows you to broach socialising through an activity rather than having to confront issues that you may still be processing.

It’s vital to recognise when you’re coping with something tough and to show yourself compassion. With exercise, this applies in the immediate and short term, but also when it comes to long-term progress. Avoid hypercriticism.

As Christine says: ‘When we meet ourselves with criticism after not being able to get out of bed and exercise, we tend to feel less motivated to attempt that task again. In contrast, when we meet ourselves with compassion and understanding, we are more likely to pick ourselves up and try again.’