Exercise for Everyday Mental Health
Any coach or person who listens to others on a regular basis will tell you that many people are struggling to hold it all together these days. The inner struggle is hidden behind job titles and achievements, and highlights on a social media page. Some of us are quite open about our struggles but many are hesitant to open up. Why? Because of how quick people are to judge. Because it would negate a carefully constructed image of "success". Because it would feel like we are letting others down. But can exercise help us overcome our inner demons?
Over the past few years, I've noticed a distinct correlation between coaching clients who made time for regular exercise, and those who did not. The difference was often the ability to manage their minds and emotions more effectively, make more effective decisions (for them), and cope better with setbacks. If they could motivate themselves to work out several times a week, then they had a ready imprint for self-motivation elsewhere. That often made it easier to set and follow through on other goals. Exercise wasn't a magic bullet but it did help them stay more positive.
It was the same case for me, albite it took me several months to strike the right balance between exercise, diet and mental wellbeing. At the beginning, I trained 9-12 hours per week; dedicating 3-4 hours for workouts and 6-8 hours for several martial arts. Yet, I felt miserable and exhausted more often than positive.
It was not until I scaled back my fitness efforts that my sleep, nutrition and positivity gradually improved. In less than three months, my energy levels were mostly restored. I no longer had cravings for certain foods like sugar, which provide short-term energy fixes and prompt crashes. I found it quite easy to treat food as fuel; I ate for sustained energy and performance, not from a place of fatigue or stress. And my recovery from a couple of martial arts injuries that plagued me for most of 2017 is almost complete.
Because of changing how I worked out and ate, I've regained much of the outer strength and inner light that was fading while trying to juggle multiple fitness-oriented balls while running a solo coaching practice. I've also rediscovered the joy of working out for the sake of working out, rather than as a supplementary way to train for martial arts. As a result, I now consider my daily movement appointments with myself (at the gym, training outdoors, yoga at home) as fitness "therapy". My life isn't radically altered, I haven't suddenly been sky-rocketed to new heights of success, but I do feel better in myself. More balanced and grounded would be a good way to put it.
Everyone's goals around fitness will differ. Personally, I'm interested in the impact of everyday exercise (and nutrition) for mental health for my future coaching clients as well as my future self. Life will happen to us all, and we'll all need solid tools and support systems we can rely on. There will be a time to sit down and talk our problems or challenges out. During those times, we will need a wise and compassionate listener to hold space for us without judgment. There will also be a time for clear teaching material, when there are gaps in our knowledge and education. And then there will be a time to sit quietly with ourselves, without seeking any answers, and then move.
As a coach, I've learned there is both an art and science to figuring out when verbal and non-verbal approaches to client development are best. Not many clients know that I first entered the coaching field through yoga, yoga therapy, and dance movement psychotherapy. In other words, I found the non-verbal development route first for managing the mind and emotions. That was how I first navigated complex emotions and experiences, such as trauma. Only later did I discover talk therapy and verbal approaches to coaching, and move into executive and communications coaching. But movement was always my first reference point and preference for personal and professional growth. I learnt that a client may not always have the right words to express what is really going on for them, and inviting them to say more may not always be what they need to move forwards.
Exploring exercise as a positive support to everyday mental health - in the right dose - is just one of the areas I'm looking at over at Inner Athletics, my coaching practice and research hub for performance, stress, and recovery. My goal is to figure out the "how" for people of different backgrounds, particularly for those who don't fit mainstream norms. For example, it is widely recommended that 20 minutes of walking outdoors while talking with a friend to reduce feelings of depression. But how does that advice need to be modified for someone who doesn't have access to a pleasant outdoor space, or doesn't yet have a reliable or positive friend to walk with? And while light to moderate exercise can work for some, what about athletes training at a higher level, particularly those like my former self who are in a state of training and life induced burnout? We may need to look more closely at other areas of our health, such as sleep and nutrition, or take some time out to refresh our energy and re-engage positively with our sport.
I hope this post has encouraged you to think of your own approaches to your everyday mental health. Could exercise or movement be a helpful area for you to explore, instead of or in addition to talking things out? Or have you spent so much time immersed in your body and movement practices that it may be time to sit down and express verbally where you're at with someone who is able and willing to listen? And if you are a coach or other adult development practitioner reading this post, I hope it's offered food for thought on your professional practice, and the ways in which we as professionals may need to adapt and modify to keep growing and supporting ourselves. And finally, always remember that it really isn't healthy to attach who we are to any particular work, job title or sport.
The Ashtanga to Zen blog weaves together over 15 years of training and practice in somatics, or mind-body-spirit related work, psychology, yoga, fitness, self-defense, and martial arts. It is a project of Inner Athletics to explore related topics on performance, stress, and recovery. Like any Tao traveller, it has no fixed destination in mind and is not intent upon arriving, however there are a few themes that will pop up over the year:
· Sports Psychology
· Positive Psychology
· Somatic Psychology
· Martial Arts, Fitness & Yoga
· Health, Nutrition & Healing
· Mental Health Awareness
Claire Higgins in a Positive Performance Coach and Self-Defense Instructor based in the UK. She is the founder of Inner Athletics and author of several books including Wild Zen and Cherry Blossom Dojo.