In 1987 I joined London Central YMCA ‘s Training and Development team as part of Lesley Mowbray’s “revolutionary guards” developing and delivering the best exercise instructor training ever seen in the UK. It was my dream job and I loved it.
Within 6 months, I noticed visual disturbances and disrupted sleep patterns. I began to lose feeling in my hands. Naturally I felt worried… then very anxious about my health. My heart began racing at random times and I would burst into tears for no apparent reason.
Consulting my GP was unhelpful (dismissing my feelings as “hypochondria”). I felt frightened and alone. I tried to ignore how I was feeling but it did not help. I started to lose feeling in my legs and my work performance was in jeopardy.
I pushed and pushed my dismissive GP until he agreed for me to go into hospital for tests. The results came back negative... nothing physically wrong with me. Relieved but my symptoms continued! It was then that I realised that my condition must be one of mental health.
I was shocked as I believed that mental health was something that happened to others. I was strong! I was confident! I loved my work. How could this be happening to me?
I won’t bore you with the full story but needless to say that I received no help or support. My fault! I felt it a sign of weakness to seek it or talk about it to others about it. I kept it quiet.
I read and studied. I self-diagnosed Stress Reactivity. I saw that exercise was supposed to help with that condition but I was doing TONS of exercise.
In the end, over the course of a year my symptoms receded and I learned that for me, working less hours, taking long walks in the countryside, meditating and practicing (what is now known as) mindfulness were the most helpful interventions.
My work in exercise and mental health as well as my own personal journey (I still have some battles) has shown me that despite these more enlightened times, there remains a strong stigma around mental health. I like to think that everyone involved in delivering physical activity, exercise and fitness has a key role and responsibility to contribute to the mental health of the nation.
Exercise as a single intervention has clinical benefits for the following mental health conditions:
· Mild to Moderate Depression
· Stress and Stress Reactivity
It also confers significant benefits to people with a wide range of other mental health conditions, either by contributing to general health, or by lowering the greater risks of early death and co conditions present for those with mental health conditions. Exercise can even act as a distraction conferring temporary relief and more general mental wellbeing.
The general population can have their mental wellbeing enhanced by participation in regular physical activity. Issues like confidence, self-esteem, mood, self-image, self-efficacy, feelings of well-being and self-worth can all be benefited.
Ad-Lib Training works with employers, exercise leaders, instructors, volunteers, organisations like Soul2Soul, The Bromley By Bow Centre and other groups to promote positive mental health and wellbeing through exercise and activity. It has long been recognised that health is not merely the absence of disease but an on-going flourishing of mind, body and spirit. Neglect any one component at your peril!
I would encourage all exercise and activity leaders, and professionals to learn as much as they can about mental health and to embrace their role in supporting this vital component of health.
I would be interested to hear of anyone who has experience in this area. Your comments and insights would be most welcome.