Exercise does not cure mental illness.
There. I said it.
When I’m particularly struggling and someone tells me to “go for a walk”, I feel like strangling them on the spot. Don’t they understand that I am literally unable to get out of bed, let alone go for a damn walk? And don’t even get me started on the people who push me to do even more, like a Zumba class or something else completely unachievable in that moment.
Trigger warning: Please do not read this post if you have an eating disorder, as you may find it triggering. Thank you.
So let’s be clear straight off: Exercise is not going to cure your mental illness. It’s not going to instantly give you 100% mental health and a mood on a par with Buddy the Elf. That shit requires therapy, medication, a good support system, plenty of rest and self-care, etc, or a combination of some/all of them (and even then, we may have to settle for less than a Buddy-style mood most of the time).
That being said, there is significant research that suggests that exercise is a mood-booster. Additionally, it helps keep you physically well, so that you don’t have to battle with physical illness as well as mental illness.
Also, I know from personal experience that mental illness can often lead to weight-gain, whether it’s from medication or comfort-eating or something else, the two do generally have a habit of linking up.
There are no hard and fast rules about how often or how much you should exercise when you’re struggling with mental illness – we all know it just doesn’t work that way. There absolutely will be days when it will be totally out of the question. But if you can find the energy and just a smidgen of motivation, here is something that I’ve tried that I have found works.
Leslie Sansone’s Walk At Home channel on YouTube has been an amazing find for me. For starters, it’s totally free. There are regular new videos and a myriad of them already on the channel. Leslie currently has over one million subscribers.
(Note: You can buy her DVD as well, which comes with additional equipment such as a resistance band and other equipment to do the more complicated workouts. I say more complicated, but they’re still relatively basic and easy to follow.)
It’s essentially a walking programme, but it’s also a multi-muscle workout (don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds), so you burn off more than simply walking. You don’t have to follow the videos in any order. There are workouts that are very low-intensity, all the way through to high-intensity (but you don’t need to worry about those). The videos are easy to follow with no complicated choreography, and if you lose your place, you just go back to walking on the spot.
As someone who is extremely unfit and overweight, and suffers from mental illness, even I find lots of her videos very manageable, and the best part is, you can do it at home. You don’t have to go out or see anyone else, and there’s none of that competitive gym-culture bullshit to deal with. Plus, if you start a video and find that it’s too much, you can just switch it off. No judgment here!
In the couple of weeks that I’ve been doing Leslie’s videos, I’ve found that I have more energy, and I’ve even lost a few pounds, even though I’m only doing the low-intensity videos.
Have a look at her channel, and decide for yourself.
Most importantly, I want to reiterate that I do not believe that exercise cures mental illness. However it can help to abate some symptoms sometimes. And if you’re anything like me regarding my mental illness, anything has got to be worth a shot, right?