A few years ago, I was out to dinner with a group of mathematicians from a local university. I was a bit out of my element in this group, as they spent hours analyzing each other’s research topics. As they chatted, I eagerly awaited the typical line of questioning I was used to from most people:
“What should I do to lose weight?”
“How do I get abs?”
“Where do I start?”
When the group exhausted their math talk, the first question directed my way was “Why should I exercise?”
I was completely caught off guard.
Believe it or not, no one had ever asked me that question before. In that moment, I realized that I took the act of exercise to be of unquestionable intrinsic benefit. I told my mathematically-gifted dinner companion about its benefits for longevity, mobility, and general quality of life.
But exercise offers so much more than just physical benefits, and I wish I had the time back then to better answer his question.
Now that it’s Mental Health month, I’m glad for the opportunity to dig deeper into the benefits of exercise. While the physical ones are incredibly important, the mental benefits may be even more so. In Canada, 50% of people who are 40 years old have or have had a mental illness. In fact, mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Canada and can cut 10 to 20 years from a person’s life expectancy.1
Here’s what I’ve learned in my 7 years of experience as a certified fitness professional:
People new to exercise start to appreciate the psychological benefit before they see any noticeable or dramatic physical change. Almost all of the people I have helped to successfully reach their physical goals have experienced this, which means it is a part of long-term success.
Every successful fitness subculture has successfully cultivated a distinct and impactful psychological environment. In fact, it’s obvious to me that many people seek out these environments primarily for the psychological effect.
Yoga provides an opportunity for serenity and calm in body and mind. Many martial arts deliver immediately on the opportunity for aggression, but use it as a Trojan horse for the mental state of discipline and cultivation of a growth mindset. CrossFit appeals to a mindset of hardworking perseverance that can increase the volume on our body’s feedback mechanisms.
It appears that many people begin exercise for reasons beyond the promise of physical satisfaction. Emotional and psychological satisfaction plays a major role, but It’s important to understand that for many people the simple act of trying anything new can seem overwhelming.
This is referred to as experiential avoidance – an unwillingness to accept or directly deal with distressing thoughts or emotions, coupled with attempts to avoid anything that might trigger them in the future.
This behaviour is associated with a state of psychological inflexibility — the tendency to ignore, deny or avoid things that are hard for us and leads to:
• Inappropriate and possibly self-destructive coping mechanisms;
• Longer recovery times; and,
• Higher rates of self harm and addiction.
Exercise is great way of working toward psychological flexibility – the courage to face things that are hard for us and improves our resilience to negative experience. The best part is that all exercise helps, which means there is no shortage of options. Try a walk in the park, or perfect your favourite dance move. If you are moved more by intensity, then drop and give yourself your best set of pushups to help with stressful workdays.
Sometimes I imagine that If I could re-live that conversation I had years ago with those mathematicians, I would have a different answer. I would have explained that exercise in any manner is an excellent start to improving your control over how you feel, and a great first step toward a lifetime of overall well-being.
If you’re experiencing an emergency dial 9-1-1.
Kids’ Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 Crisis Help Centres in Canada: https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/
Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310
If you’re looking for professional counselling, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re ready to investigate how exercise can help your mental health, email@example.com
Alan Kerr-Wilson is a multi-certified personal trainer with seven years of experience helping his clients gain physical and mental strength. He has over two decades of experience practicing a wide range of martial arts, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, and kung fu. Alan has dedicated his life to the pursuit of mental and physical well-being. When he’s not in the gym, you can find him deeply engrossed in the latest peer-reviewed research, with his nose in a physiology text book, or planning his next camping adventure.
His certifications include CanFit Pro, Fascial Stretch Therapy Level 1, Exercise Therapist Levels 1 & 2, Darby Training Systems Level 1, ISI Functional Nutrition Certified, ISI Functional Hypertrophy Certified, andFRC – Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist.