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Is exercise bad for your mental health?


Nursing Times blogger Tony Barlow on the mental toll of getting fit.

In a rash moment of panic, I did what I said I would never do, something that I have always maintained is hazardous and disturbing. I joined a gym

Let me explain. For years I have seen the health promotion campaigns that told me to lose weight, to stop smoking and to cut my alcohol intake. I have seen the nation bombarded with dire warnings of impending doom if we didn’t eat our five a day or three portions of wholegrain. And you would certainly be going to the fiery furnace of Hades if you didn’t exercise for 20 minutes five times a week.

Heroically, I mounted a resistance movement with my observation that as a nation, we are so preoccupied with getting physically fit that we are forgetting to be happy. My idiom was essentially simple – that I would rather leave this earth at 70 with a smile on my face than at 80 worrying about whether I had eaten enough carrots that day. Against fierce opposition, my resistance movement grew, confident that mental happiness is far more important than physical health.

Then, for a reason I still have not fathomed, I looked in the mirror. I was confronted by a waist line that was far bigger than my shoulders - this was the moment of panic. I raced to my local gym and signed a two year membership deal straight away. I was provided with a programme of exercise that I have rigidly stuck to, working out every other day. My diet changed dramatically – where once I would feast on several bars of chocolate for my dinner, I now take to work a concoction of brown rice, grilled chicken and vegetables (if I am feeling naughty, a splash of balsamic vinegar). Tuna stocks in the ocean have also taken a hit as I eat loads of it now instead of, well, most foods. Processed foods went and in came wholegrain and fruit, fruit and more fruit.

I must admit, the result has been remarkable. Body fat has dropped (from 28% to 24%) and muscle has increased (from 33% to 35%) all in the space of 7 weeks. But hang on…its not all good news though.

You see, when I was originally told I was turning (had turned) into a couch potato, I became worried, stressed. For these six weeks I have been obsessed with the calorific value of all foods and if I don’t visit the gym, I become agitated. Put simply, where I was once relatively happy and content, I became depressed and obsessed. I worried if I wasn’t eating correctly. I worried if I wasn’t doing one more rep. I worried if I wasn’t beating my best time on the rower. I worried.

I freely admit that my exercise regime became an obsessive passion. But hang on, surely I have proved my own point, that happiness is sacrificed in the pursuit of physical health promotion? Are we as a nation jogging into depression? Are we forgetting to be happy as long as long as we have bowl of brown rice?

Of course, some people will be saying at this point that I hadn’t got an appropriate balance, that I was placing far too much emphasis on exercise and diet. Well, look at all the health promotion campaigns out there – where is balance?

As an RMN, I would dearly love to see a campaign where people are told: “Forget the gym. Forget the diet. Just grab some chocolate and watch a film with a loved one”. Having said that, there is one campaign by a makeup company that seems to emphasise that a feeling of self worth is important – you know the one, ‘because you’re worth it’.

Perhaps this nation would benefit if we all simply said this to ourselves on a daily basis as we leant back on our chairs and watched joggers trot by.

And now? Well, I am happy to still go to the gym!

About the author

Tony Barlow is a senior lecturer in mental health at Birmingham City University


Readers' comments (4)

  • I kind of see your point, but living in the moment doesn't mean that you have to be sitting, watching tv and eating chocolate in that moment.

    Counting calories and obsessing over the gym probably won't help your mental health, cooking healthy(ish) food that tastes nice, maybe cooking it while talking to your loved one, and enjoying eating it might.

    As might enjoying the feeling of being healthier and stronger, or exercising outside, I love walking or running in the park - I see it as 'me' time.

    It is simply a matter of how you percieve living a healthy lifestyle!

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  • No it isn't in any way shape or form. It is the exact opposite in fact, as many studies have shown.

    What your article suggests is that you went from one extreme to the other relatively quickly, which to be fair is what a lot of people do. You went from couch patato to calorie counter, and that isn't right either. I have seen it so many times over the years, and it doesn't do anyone any good in the long run as most will burn out and revert to their old ways. The entire plethora of ridiculous 'health' advice out there (such as bloody weight watchers and those even more ridiculous fad diets most women seem to gravitate to) don't help either.

    What I advocate, and have always done so, like you say is a balance. Everyone NEEDS a healthy lifestyle, they NEED excercise and a healthy level of body fat and muscle, they NEED a healthy base diet. But there is also nothing wrong with taking one day out of your gym routine once in a while to have a 'lazy day' as long as you get back into it for your next session, there is nothing wrong with having a takeaway once in a while, or a chocolate bar as a snack, as long as they don't become 99% of your base diet! It's all about balance, and that at the end of the day is what will make you happy.

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  • I know this is a tongue in cheek article but I have to say that when I did suffer from anxiety/depression one of my "treatments" which actually worked was regular exercise in the form of running. This compared much more favourably with the talking therapies and pills I had to endure, and was much cheaper to society, not to mention the knock on effect of increased physical health. I did a bit of googling on the subject and found that exercise is a proven benefit in many types of mental illness. Of course, my OCD is another story...

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  • I enjoy going on my elliptical trainer 3-4 times a week for 45 mins or brisk walking for 30 mins. I see this as a way of winding down after a stressful day at work. Cooking and eating healthily is my passion and I see this as extremely therapeutic. Therefore, I can't see why I should get obsessed with regular exercise and healthy eating.

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