Staying fit when you feel low

Silhouette of a woman walking through a dense green forest When you search the internet for ways of improving mental health, you will always find results that mention exercise. It is good advice and science tells us it does help.  

However this advice does not necessarily help people who are struggling to get out of their homes due to mental illness or people whose depression or other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia makes finding motivation incredibly difficult, or their anxiety causes them to doubt their capabilities.  

We asked Dr Julie Williams - one of our Mind & Body experts - what people who are struggling with mental health can do to look after their physical health. Once we find ways of looking after our physical health our mental health benefits which in turn makes it easier to keep up our physical activities. 

Why do you think exercise helps to improve mental health? 

“There's a lot of evidence that shows exercise can make people feel better. Our minds and our bodies are so linked, so that’s why when we move it seems to have a real impact. People often talk about endorphins, they say you get an endorphin rush, but I think often it's just the experience of doing the exercise that helps us feel better.”  

How does exercise help you? 

“It helps me when I'm feeling stressed. When you’re stressed you feel it in your body, your shoulders and everywhere. For me, there's something about finding the type of exercise that I enjoy. I can't do running - that's just not for me - but I've started doing boxing training and something about concentrating on what I am being taught stops me from thinking about the fact that I'm doing exercise.”  

What can prevent people from looking after their physical health? 

“People with SMI are as aware as everyone else is of all the messages that we get about exercise. Most people want to get fitter but for a lot of people with mental health conditions that can be really challenging. For people with severe mental illness, things like hallucinations, paranoid ideas and distressing experiences can make going outside and doing anything else extremely difficult. 

"Mental health conditions like depression can also stop people from activity, and people often find it difficult to get started on things or find the motivation they need to look after their physical health.”  

Here are some of Julie’s tips to help you stay fit when you are struggling and feeling low:  

Be as kind to yourself as you would someone else who was trying something new for the first time 

“It's important for people to not beat themselves up when they don't exercise. If you can’t do today, you shouldn’t feel like you’ve lost everything by not doing it, it's ok! Be kind to yourself and tomorrow hopefully you’ll feel a bit better and you can try again.” 

It won’t all be for you and that’s ok  

“People can find it difficult to know what activities work for them, especially because running is the one that people always talk about but isn't necessarily for everyone. You need to have trainers and when you're on a low income, having to buy good quality trainers or any new pieces of sports equipment, that can be really difficult."

"Recognising that not every activity will be the right fit for you can help to take off some of the pressure. Give yourself credit when you try and if you think it’s not right for you give yourself a break and try again with something else."

- The British Heart Foundation has a fun quiz which can help people to get started, try it for some motivation and inspiration. 

We all need a little push sometimes  

“On one of my past studies ‘Walk this Way’ we aimed to help people with Severe Mental Illness be more active. We set up a walking group and people really liked the social side of that study. On our walks people didn't always share their experiences, they weren't expected to. They had lots of different conversations about lots of different things, but I think being in a group of people who understood what they were going through was really helpful. If you've got someone that will go with you, you will be much more likely to go because they're waiting for you, they can be your motivation.”  

When you find the right exercise it can become a real treat 

“It can help to see exercise as a reward rather than a punishment. People often feel like they have to exercise but that can stop them from enjoying it. However, when it is your own choice and you see it as a reward, you do tend to enjoy it. It's thinking, I know this will help me to feel better.” 

Share your intentions and celebrate your wins with others - especially the small wins  

“When we did the Health Champions study, one of our participants said the encouragement he got from the Health Champion he was paired with made a big difference. He told his Health Champion he really wanted to walk more, so every week he would get a text asking ‘did you manage to get out for a walk?’ ‘How did it go?’ It helped because he wanted to be able to be able to text back and say, yes I did, it went well. Sometimes we need to have someone else supporting us to help us to get going. It has to be something you want to happen and it can't be someone telling you. Just that gentle encouragement I think can work for people.” 

No one starts with a marathon 

“Remind yourself that any exercise, however small is beneficial. People shouldn’t think that if they can’t do 10,000 steps a day there is no point but even five minutes of being active is good!” 

Colleagues from the Mind & Body team also joined the conversation and shared what helped them to keep going with their exercise routines:  

I try to get outside, even if only a few minutes - some fresh air (even when it's raining) can make all the difference.

- Jessie McCulloch  

Although difficult I do try to go for a walk around the park in my area. If I can drag myself to the gym I will (even if it’s only 30 minutes). I also ensure to take a few breaks in the day... which is helpful.

- Carl Nawbudike