‘I try to notice when voices in my head are telling me I’ve not done “enough”,’ says Adam Folkard, 37, on his relationship with exercise.
‘If I catch those thoughts early, I can get my head up, look around, centre myself and enjoy the scenery before continuing.
‘I remind myself that all movement is good movement, and try to quiet that inner judge.’
Working up a sweat is often touted as being a go-to coping mechanism for poor mental health – it can reduce your risk of developing depression by up to 30%. But for many people, like Adam, it can have the opposite effect.
Exercise can actually trigger feelings of anxiety, and can lead to other issues such as over-training, or an eating problem, if it becomes an obsession.
The mental health charity, Mind, have partnered with sports brand ASICS, releasing new data which reveals just how muddied our thoughts around exercise can become.
They found that two in five women (43%) are put off getting physically active because it feels too competitive, while more than half (57%) don’t participate in sport because they were not good at PE at school and that’s shaped their views on fitness.
Hayley Jarvis, who works for Mind, says: ‘One of the barriers preventing people with mental health problems from getting active is feeling self-conscious about their bodies.
‘Social media depictions of physical activity, including body image, can also play a role in putting people off because they don’t feel “gym body” ready.
‘Mind found that there are particular barriers for women with mental health problems.’
Now the charity is working with ASICS on their Get Active programme to help people overcome barriers to fitness.
The programme provides tailored support to help people choose activities which are suitable for them and to enable them to take the first steps to being active.
‘We want people to enjoy being physically active for the way it makes us feel and to set realistic goals that aren’t based around weight or shape,’ she adds.
Adam Folkard, who lives near Leeds, has struggled with anxiety and depression, and has diabetes and high blood pressure. Exercise helps him combat some of these issues, and he has been supported by Mind.
But, Adam believed that if he wasn’t seeing physical changes, exercise was pointless.
‘Everything I read told me that if I just “stuck with it” or found the exercise that was “right for me”, then I would just feel fantastic. I saw so many people and publications out there telling me exercise was something amazing. For me, it was the opposite,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I would stop exercising and my mental health would improve, but then fears for my health would kick in and I’d feel like I “had” to start exercising again. This was a negative cycle that grew over time.’
Adam also says he worried what others might think when he exercised.
‘As someone living in a larger body, I was very conscious of being judged during exercise,’ he says.
‘When walking alongside other people, I would try to hide it when I was out of breath.’
One day, after forcing himself out on a walk during a lunch break, he turned back after 10 minutes, his mind racing with ‘dark thoughts’.
He decided to contact Mind, and now works with the charity to advocate for better awareness of when exercise can be unhelpful in dealing with mental health.
‘I try not to call it “exercise” in my head now,’ he says. ‘I’ve heard a number of terms, such as ‘being active’ or ‘positive movement’.
‘I know this seems like a small thing, but it takes my mind away from the negative sports related or target driven exercise I had a toxic relationship with.
‘I have also taken the pressure off myself. I’ve removed my smart watch, and picked new walking routes, which help me get my head up and enjoy it, rather than ‘measuring’ my exercise.’
Biola Babawale, 35, from London, also realised she needed to stop viewing exercise as a goal-based activity.
She initially turned to working out after ‘going through a lot of upheavals’, including a new job and a breakup. Race training became a coping mechanism – without much thought for physical recovery and form. She soon ended up with an injury that left her in ‘agony.’
‘Before I got injured, the culture and dialogue was about the stats,’ she explains. ‘Every training session, the outcome was binary: either you fail or succeed.
‘I ended up really hurting my knee and the small quad muscles around my knee became really inflamed, such that I was off the bike for nearly a year.’
Last to cross the finish line: 'My only goal for the marathon was to complete it'
Tom Durnin, 35, was this year’s ‘final finisher’ at the London Marathon, meaning of all the runners, he crossed the finish line last.
The transport manager from Banbury tells Metro.co.uk: ‘My only goal for the marathon from the start was to complete it, my position was never a factor.
I had never done anything close to this before, so mindset to start slowly and just see if I could keep a slow jog for as long as I could.
‘I did well for the first 10 miles until injury started to set in and I was battling with my body to keep pushing and make it to the end, walking, jogging, and using an umbrella as a walking stick to help me keep moving.
‘Although a lot of the crowds had gone, a few that stayed out and cheered the last of us along the way and still had sweets being handed out which gave me a little boost.
‘The feeling I felt when I crossed the finish was absolutely incredible, it was a proud moment.
‘I had a marshal walking with me for the final six miles encouraging me to keep going.
‘Since finishing the marathon the way I feel about fitness and training has made me realise that it is only about me. Whether it is a one mile run, a short run with bursts of sprints or a walk around the local area the key is just keep moving at your own pace.’
Biola was forced to reassess why she cycled.
‘It made me really concentrate on the joy of cycling,’ she says. She no longer measures her workouts by number, nor ‘beats’ herself up if she can’t achieve a certain level of power on the bike.
‘My training is 100% about feel now and perceived effort, rather than relying on the target and getting distracted about this.
‘There’s a lot less guilt, I do less solitary and hard sessions, I’m more adventurous because I am no longer tied to training schedules.
‘Post injury, switching all the devices off, the power meters, smart watches, the tracking of the weights, I’ve focused on the here and now.
‘If I beat a number or didn’t, who knows. Who cares! The fact is I’m out there getting it done and having a blast while doing it.’
This resonates with Rachel Ashe, 37, from Swansea. She runs Mental Health Swims, a social enterprise fighting against the stigma of mental health issues through cold water swimming.
Rachel, who has social anxiety and depression, says: ‘I wanted possible participants to know that a kind welcome would be guaranteed and to know that there would be some understanding of what it’s like to live with a mental illness.
‘Cold water has loads of amazing benefits, but we focus less on that at MHS and more on how kindness can have a transformative effect on a person’s life.
‘The word ‘exercise’ can bring up lots of difficult feelings for people, especially when we have been taught that exercise is all about burning calories, getting tighter, thinner and toned.
‘Some of us, myself included, will never be those things and that doesn’t mean I have failed at exercise.
‘We need to see a diverse range of bodies and abilities, so that we feel comfortable to try different ways of moving and see what feels good to us.’
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Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.
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