How I transformed my mental health with exercise

To say I was never the sporty type would be an understatement. At school I had an immense hatred of PE – particularly team games because quite frankly, I was shit. When I think of PE lessons the first things that pop into my mind are 1) being physically pushed around the cross country course by a teacher in the pouring rain and 2) being belted in the stomach by a football whilst in the midst of soul destroying cramps. Fun times.

Unfortunately for many years, I mistook my dislike of PE as a dislike of exercise. Sure, there were times when I did decide I was going to get fit; going to the gym, starting running, or doing workout DVDs, whatever the latest ‘thing’ was. I often worked myself up and got really motivated; exercising every day of the week, but each time I’d give up within a month or less. I’d always get really down on myself, wondering why exercise was SO much harder for me than everyone else. Of course in reality, it wasn’t – I just had a shitty attitude towards it. Whilst I was in the midst of depression, exercise became this vicious cycle – just as everything in my life seemed to become. I’d get a spark of motivation, spend ages ‘working myself up to it’, and then either end up not doing it at all or sticking at it for a few weeks before giving up.

Looking back now, I realise why my efforts always failed; I was exercising for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t doing it for myself; I wanted to get fit because I wanted to look ‘better’, I wanted people to like me more and I wanted to stand out in a world where I felt very small. Exercise was simply something I felt I had to do in order to be more attractive, and I hoped it would make me feel noticed and loved. As a young teenager, I think it’s easy to fall into this trap. I was also fixated on getting visible results, and getting them quickly. Now of course, I realise that all those promises of ‘transforming your body in 30 days’ are complete rubbish. The real changes come when you have realistic expectations, and work to change your lifestyle, not just your body.

After a good 5 years of being stuck in this energy-draining cycle, I decided to take control. At 18 I was much more self-aware, as well as less reliant on the views of others. I’d read so much about how exercise can be hugely beneficial to mental health and, as someone who’d been on the roller coaster of depression and SAD since a very young age, I decided enough was enough – I needed to give this a good try.

It wasn’t plain sailing to start with; after purchasing my gym membership I found myself really nervous. It took me a good while to start feeling comfortable exercising in front of other people and I was terrified of making a fool of myself. I was also pretty clueless on what to do, sort of drifting around doing everything that didn’t make me feel self-conscious. This was quite draining and the usual feelings of ‘I’m not getting anywhere’, or ‘I’m never going to be good at this’ started creeping back. However I knew that this time I just had to push through – there was no way I was going to give up for the millionth time.

I started doing some research, and although to begin with it all felt quite overwhelming, I was surprised to notice that I was actually making some progress. Over the weeks and months, I structured my own routines and adapted them whenever it felt necessary. After those tough first few weeks, I found myself enjoying and even looking forward to those 3 or 4 gym sessions each week; they were fast becoming my little escape from the stresses of life. I find now that even the drive there and back feels like part of that me-time; 30 minutes alone with your thoughts can be incredibly therapeutic.

Eventually I started seeing some changes in my body, but the more prominent changes were in my mind. My head felt so much clearer, and it showed. I went from getting Us and Es at college to getting As across the board – I almost fully credit exercise for this. As well as the clearer head, going to the gym was giving me the energy I needed to work harder at college. Energy is certainly not something that comes easily to me; the first thing I notice when my mental health starts declining is tiredness. Furthermore, the small changes in my body started benefitting me mentally as well; I’ve become much more body confident. The process of seeing muscles slowly forming, and my body shaping the way I want it to is so empowering. Mental illness can cause you to feel as though you have no control over yourself, so to actually be able to look at my reflection in the mirror and say ‘you know what, I can do whatever I want’ feels amazing. There’s truly nothing like the feeling of watching yourself lifting a heavier weight; knowing that you’re physically strong certainly has a knock-on effect on your mental strength.

In no way am I trying to suggest that exercise alone is enough to ‘cure’ a mental illness, because of course it’s not that simple. I still take medication to give me a helping hand, and I still have my down days. However, exercising has hands down been the smartest decision of my life. I now feel more balanced and healthy than I ever have done, and I can’t imagine going back to a life without my workouts. In the past, I was incredibly sceptical about whether exercise could ever be as magical as people said it was, but I can firmly say I’ve proven to myself that it can be. It has transformed me completely in mind and is steadily transforming my body, too. Despite the fact that one size doesn’t fit all as far as what works, I strongly believe that exercising, (as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons), has the power to turn lives around completely.

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