On exercise and mental health

I often see fitness fanatics (or just people who like to workout) on social media tell others with depression, and related mental health disorders, that if only they exercised, they would be cured. Aside from the fact that saying this is really fucking ableist, I also think it’s downright dangerous & wrong.

I won’t deny I feel better in the short-term when I’m working out regularly. I can go into the gym angry, anxious and over-thinky, but come out a picture of Zen-like calm (sometimes even ecstatically happy). And that’s great! It really is. But it might not happen to everyone, not everyone can even get to a gym (or take part in some other form of exercise) in the first place, and even if it did happen to everyone, that’s not a reason for people to preach exercise to random strangers, like it’s a magic cure-all.

(That’s nice)

(Oh that Deepak Chopra!)

There are definitely studies which show exercise can help alleviate mild to moderate depression (here’s a report on one) and you will find hundreds of people who can anecdotally tell you that working out makes them happy. And again, that’s great.

But for others, exercise is not a cure-all. In fact for some, it’s not an option. And for me personally, while I feel great after I come out of the gym, the effect is temporary and I will never “cure” my depression with exercise. In fact, I often think I won’t be “cured” at all, in the way an alcoholic is never “cured” – you can only ever learn to manage your symptoms, and they can come & go depending on circumstances. Personally I had 10 years of taking anti-depressants and 6 years of twice-weekly psychoanalytic psychotherapy, both of which helped me manage for a long time, but I don’t think I’m “cured” forever.

So when I see fitness bloggers or other healthy-living gurus preaching that, if you’re depressed/anxious/have other MH issues, all you need to do is take up weights and drop gluten/sugar/red meat/whatever and you’ll be *magically cured*, I get angry. It’s irresponsible – in the same way a holistic health guru telling a cancer patient to ditch chemo for coconut water is irresponsible.

You may be a person’s personal trainer, an experienced fitness writer or athlete (or even Life Coach) but you’re not their GP and if you’re talking about very real mental illnesses that can (and do) kill, you need to take responsibility and care with what you say.

And if you’re a person with mental illness, please please talk to your doctor (or other professional) before you choose to rely on diet & exercise to manage your illness.

But at the end of the day, there is NO SHAME in deciding that exercise isn’t enough, and you need medication. All the cardio, deadlifts, gluten-free treats and almond milk in the world are no match for clinically-trialled drugs and professional help, if that’s what you need.

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2 thoughts on “On exercise and mental health

  1. G

    (‘Food is the most abused anxiety drug’? Then all people with anxiety need to do is stop eating, eh?)

    Thank you for putting this so succinctly– this saves lives. Exercise is not a sufficient treatment for mental illness!

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