Exercise and mental health: overcoming barriers

The health benefits of exercise are well recognised.

Experts believe exercise releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and help you concentrate, sleep and feel better.

Exercise also keeps the brain and your other vital organs healthy.

“I get a huge buzz from my rock ’n’ roll class. Hours later, my legs ache, but I’m still smiling.”


Exercising doesn’t just mean doing sport or going to the gym. Walks in the park, gardening or housework can also keep you active.

Experts say most people should do about 30 minutes’ exercise at least five days a week.

Try to make physical activity that you enjoy a part of your day.

[Source: 2. Keep active | Mental Health Foundation]

We all know this and are likely to have had direct experience of these benefits. 

Why, then, can it still be so difficult to find the motivation to exercise?

It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with all my life, experiencing barriers associated with body image when I was younger.  I knew swimming was good exercise but would only ever go to a swimming pool or wear a swimsuit on a beach if I’d starved myself to be thin enough to feel able to do that. And even then, I felt morbidly self-conscious about how I looked.  It took a long time and a lot of working through masses amount of personal ‘stuff’ before I could stop worrying and start enjoying swimming. My partner and I even go wild swimming now, and it feels wonderful.

I tried jogging, but always found it so hard to build myself up to a regular routine. Lacking in willpower and discipline some people might say.  Struggling with severe depression, anxiety and low self-esteem was the real reason.  I’ve continued to struggle ever since, but have also never given up. Now 65, I’ve been doing on-line exercise classes, including yoga and pilates during lockdown.  Last summer we did some cycling around our local lanes.  We still both find that it’s an effort to go out, sometimes, but give each other a push and/or moral support when we need it.  Whatever it takes. 

What’s the alternative?  An inactive old age with all the complications that brings?

I’ve always found it difficult to go to a gym or to exercise classes after work. Just getting through a day involved such a major effort for me.  So I looked for ways to combine exercise into my daily routine.  Cycling to work meant that I often turned up looking like a drowned rat, but it did help.

Even so, I continued to struggle with depression, and continued to find it hard to motivate myself to exercise enough to help it lift on anything more than a temporary basis.  I felt like the only way I could sustain the ‘lift’ would be to train as if I was an Olympic athlete.  I have neither the physique nor the talent to be anything remotely akin to athletic and, like most people, have had to commit a significant amount of my time to earning a living and keeping up with the usual day to day domestic activities.

There were times as well when I felt that the more I exercised, the deeper my depression went, after the initial ‘buzz’ fell away. 

I continued to have to do a lot of work to try and shift it, with exercise being one of a number of tools and techniques that I’ve tried and tested over the years.  It has been, and continues to be, a lifetime endeavour.  I think that this is in part because of the way emotions are stored in the body, a matter which has been increasingly recognised and written about including the following article by Sean Grover (2018):

For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. Certainly, not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to stress, recurring patterns emerged.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Repression

Fear is the driving force behind repression, and is frequently rooted in your past. Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression fuels psychosomatic symptoms and self-destructive patterns.

[Source:Where Do You Store Stress in Your Body? Top 10 Secret Areas | Psychology Today]

In his article in Psychology Today, Sean Grover goes on to identify the ‘Top 10 Tension Areas for Unwanted Feelings’ as:

1.Lower Back: Anger
2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear
3. Heart & Chest: Hurt
4. Headache: Loss of control
5. Neck/Shoulder Tension: Burdens
6. Fatigue: Resentments
7. Numbness: Trauma
8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety
9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression
10. Insomnia: Loss of self

I find this interesting and helpful, relating these areas to recent and past experiences.

I did a lot of work on repressed anger at one point, including going to a workshop where I was encouraged to take a lot of it out on a punch bag.  The physicality of the release at the time was phenomenal (although I did go into a kind of ‘toxic shock’ afterwards, so I would not recommend anyone trying this approach without a very strong support network around them).

Some years later, experiencing stress at work, I searched out volunteering opportunities, finding an outlet by doing trail maintenance work where I could break big rocks into smaller rocks to make hardcore with a sledgehammer.  I came back refreshed and invigorated. Although the effects did wear off after a while, I have so far – touch wood – not suffered from lower back problems.

Fatigue and resentments strike a chord with me – I’m so good at hanging on to them, no wonder I feel tired all the time!

So, while I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to this point, and to feel largely positive about the position I’m in, there’s still a lot to do.

It’s often the enormity – or perceived enormity of the challenge – that puts us off dealing with it, which leads to repression, which leads to depression….

It’s all about the next step, and the one after that …

There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions, especially when difficulties are deep-rooted.  I just keep reminding myself that it’s all about the next step. And the one after that. And the one after that.  It does get easier.  Miraculously – it feels to me – my steps feel a lot lighter, at the age I’m at now, than they did when I was young, all those years ago! Something must be working, somehow. Barriers can be overcome. It’s not easy, but it’s worth working at it, bit by bit.

2 thoughts on “Exercise and mental health: overcoming barriers”

  1. Never realised how similar our MH journeys were/are.

    One thing I have always admired about you is that you are wonderfully unique. You always seem to stay true to who you are, quirky and lovely. It’s hard to stay true to yourself when you are battling with self image. But I have always admired you for doing so xxx

    Like

    1. Thanks Amy😘 I still feel like I’m trying to find my true self! I’ve pushed through a lot of barriers – having had a lot of inner resistance – and am still working on it. It’s certainly an ongoing journey. For a long time it was a very lonely one; good to know that I’m not on my own. Looking forward to when we can go out walking together again. X

      Like

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