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The power of exercise for mental health

Article by Make Lemonade NZ - exercise for mental health


Exercise helps to relieve stress, improve sleep patterns, boost the mood, improve concentration and sharpen the memory. It is also widely recognised as an effective tool to relieve moderate depression and anxiety symptoms and prevent relapses.

Taking a mindful approach to exercise by concentrating on each physical movement and breathing is a powerful natural anti-anxiety treatment as it helps interrupt the flow of worries circling the mind. Activities like yoga are especially focused on this but the same principles can be applied when taking part in any physical activity.

Finding the motivation to exercise when susceptible to depression can be incredibly difficult for some people but once the benefits of exercise are experienced, they can be life changing.

This has been the case for personal trainer Shane Way who for years struggled to understand his sexuality and gender, had weight issues and battled with depression and anxiety.

After attempting to take his life in 2012, Shane realised he needed to take a fresh approach to life and looked to exercise to break through the clouds. Through exercise, he gained confidence, found a new passion, began a new career in the exercise industry and experienced for himself the significantly positive effects physical activity can have on mental health.

Article by Make Lemonade NZ - Shane Way, personal trainer
NZ Exercise Industry Awards 2016 student of the year, Shane Way

Shane is now a qualified personal trainer and massage therapist and has accepted that mental illness will always be in his life. He continues to battle with depression, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder but has a life goal of using exercise as a treatment for mental illness and helping others build confidence, self-esteem and self-acceptance.

Shane’s tips on taking a sensible approach to exercise when struggling with mental health related issues:

Start off small

Depression and anxiety are already overwhelming so getting into exercise initially can make this worse. Start off with a small walk around a local park or something similar, choose a time of day when you know it won’t be busy so that you can have your own space and be one with yourself. Once you can get into a routine, then you can start to try new things like going for a run, training with a friend and even going to a gym or group fitness class.

Find the right fitness centre to fit your personality

If you join a gym, check it out first and get a trial to see if it is the right fit for you (for now). There is no point joining a gym if you aren’t comfortable there – a big part of mental illness is feeling safe and accepted. Feel free to talk to someone at the gym, ask them when the quieter times are and what the overall atmosphere is like. I prefer a gym where the music is upbeat, it is colourful, well organised and the staff are friendly and caring.

Get a personal trainer

Part of depression and anxiety is feeling isolated and unsupported in life, so avoid this at the gym. Even though I’m a fitness professional I have always had a personal trainer because I need someone to be accountable to and to push me along. I mostly need someone to support me, that I can talk to and get some issues off my chest. Ask around, find a trainer that you will feel comfortable with, ask for someone who has experience in the mental health field like me.

Set achievable goals

Don’t go into it thinking you will be fit and strong overnight. You’re not going to lose 20 kilograms in a month and you’re not going to have huge muscles next week. If you manage just a little exercise, like taking the dog for walk, that’s still something to feel good about. Be realistic. If you have a bigger goal in mind, set a long-term date then work backwards and set out small achievable steps to help you reach the big one. For example, if your goal is to run 10 kilometres, set mini goals like running for five minutes the first week and building up from there. Most importantly, set yourself up for success, not failure.

Have a wow factor in every workout

Set yourself a goal each time you exercise that is achievable but makes you challenge yourself. This may be running a few seconds faster or doing a few extra repetitions. It’s amazing how improving your time or the amount of times you do something can really boost your confidence. This is something I incorporate into all my workouts and my clients’ workouts. It gives me and the client a sense of accomplishment – that feeling of winning and it’s the best feeling you can get.

Shane says there is a massive correlation between exercise and how people feel.

“Hands down my mood is better and more stable on the days I exercise compared to the days I don’t.

“If I feel down, I go for a run and feel so much better afterwards. So many people I train with say the same. Exercise is what they do to feel good about themselves.

“Exercise is so important for people who suffer from anxiety, depression or any other mental health related issues – it empowers you, makes you stronger and most importantly, happier.”

Shane Way is a registered exercise professional with a certificate in fitness industry training, a degree in sports science and human performance and a certificate in massage therapy. Shane is the 2016 NZ Exercise Industry Awards student of the year.

Janelle Blythe
Make Lemonade's news editor.

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