I have always had a love-hate relationship with exercise. So, it was no surprise that when I was struggling with mental illness, moving my body was not a priority.
I’ve never been the athletic-type. I don’t get a thrill from any kind of exercise. To me, it was a form of torture. Not only that but having body image issues can really take the fun of moving your body. Especially when it is weight-loss focused.
Growing up, I was a keen netballer but only comfortable in my favoured position – goalkeeper. Limited running, yes, please! In high-school, I’d avoid sports carnivals like the plague. Every year at the swimming carnival, it would always be very conveniently “that time of the month”.
This feeling has continued with me through adulthood, although there was a brief change of heart when I started dating a personal trainer. I became a gym junkie and even considered a career in the fitness industry. I’m fairly certain I was possessed by a muscly, protein-fueled, do-you-even-lift-bro, demon.
After that phase of my life ended, I started to resent exercise. I hated running, even after easing myself into. It hurt and made me feel like my whole body was on fire. But I kept pushing myself because everyone else seemed to enjoy it. I hated the thought of going to a sweaty, B.O-scented gym. And in society’s obsession with ‘working out’, I felt like an outsider for not participating in cult-like fitness programs (*cough* CrossFit and more recently, *cough*, F45).
One day I decided enough was enough. Exercise was supposed to make me feel good, both physically and mentally! My running shoes were decommissioned and opted for walking instead. I found myself becoming more present and engaging with my surroundings. I started to take notice of the lyrics from the songs blaring in my headphones and most importantly, the grimace on my face disappeared.
Once I started feeling confident about exercise again, I began exploring other ways to keep fit. I enrolled in burlesque classes, took roller-skating lessons, yoga, swimming and I have just started aqua workout classes at my local pool!
Exercise doesn’t just benefit us physically, it is also wonderful for mental health.
This is why it is so important to engage in activity that is enjoyable and doesn’t leave you cringing in pain. It is hard enough to muster up the energy to get out of bed with a low-functioning mental illness, let alone incorporate exercise into your day when depression has taken over.
Tips for organising an exercise routine when you're experiencing mental illness
Start slow and gradually build up your fitness levels
During my most recent episode of depression, I was exercising rather sporadically and found my fitness levels had reached an all-time low. I would become fatigued after just a short walk. I stopped pushing myself, gave my body a rest every few days and increased my distance slowly.
Only do what your body can handle
This goes for both the type of exercise you choose and the time you spend doing it! Start with a 10-15 minute walk each day to get your body moving again. Gradually increase this to 30 minutes per day.
Exercising outdoors has been associated with increased energy levels and revitalisation, so get outside and enjoy the fresh air! Participants in a study conducted on outdoor exercise reported that they enjoyed their workouts more than those who exercised indoors. They were also more likely to continue their routines.
Stick to a routine as much as possible
Easier said than done, right? I’ve had weeks where I’ve exercised each day and others I have only managed a day or two. Try and schedule in exercise around the same time each day to form a habit. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, we are only human after all.
Change your outlook on exercise
To me, this has been the most important thing. Since changing my views on exercise, I not only feel better mentally but physically too! My energy levels have increased and I’m releasing all the endorphins.
PS. Do body image issues affect your relationship with exercise? Find out how I became friends with my body in these articles!