Learning that exercise didn’t have to be miserable
Adam and Paula blog about their experiences of exercise psychology and how it helped Adam tackle his negative thoughts around movement.
By sharing their story of working together, Adam and Paula hope to help others struggling with exercise to understand they are not alone, and importantly - it is possible for things to change.
I was 10 minutes into a typical lunchtime walk when I turned and rushed home, my good mood replaced by anxiety and spiralling thoughts. Nothing special had happened, I had just walked.
“Everything I saw told me exercise was supposed to be good for my mental health, and that was not my experience.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident – I’d felt this way for years, every time I exercised. I was sick of reading, 'find exercise you enjoy', 'get a personal trainer', 'stick with it' or 'exercise with a friend'. Everything I saw told me exercise was supposed to be good for my mental health, and that was not my experience. I felt like a failure.
I’d never enjoyed exercise, and my relationship with it had been deteriorating. I hated PE, with the shame of being picked last and wearing clothes I was uncomfortable in. Then, in my 20s, I’d force myself to exercise because of stigma about weight and fear of being judged. When I was diagnosed with some health problems in my 30s, that fear grew stronger.
The thought of exercising with others, (even friends), filled me with dread, and if I ever got out of breath I’d try to hide it. I would promote body positivity but found it hard to believe it for myself sometimes. I was worried about encountering weight-bias and stigma if I told anyone how I was really feeling.
I had tried every different type of exercise I could find and afford and was terrified of how I was being perceived. Exercise had become a punishment for failing 'at life' and the lack of enjoyment was my fault.
I was sick of balancing my mental and physical health. When I stopped exercising my mood would lift. Then health worries would creep in, and I’d start again. I’d think, if this is what I must do to stay healthy, then is it worth it? Would I not rather have a shorter, but happier life Thankfully, it was at this point that I started working with Paula.
When I first met Adam, he was stuck in a mental battle. He felt he had to exercise otherwise it would negatively impact his health. Yet he hated exercise and it made him miserable.
“What Adam was experiencing is a common cycle when something (like exercise) provokes negative thoughts.”
What Adam was experiencing is a common cycle when something (like exercise) provokes negative thoughts (like self-blame, hatred of exercise) and difficult emotions (like anger, fear).
These feelings and thoughts then lead us to behave in a way that isn’t helpful, such as avoiding physical activity altogether or – like Adam – approaching exercise with fear, which in turn makes us feel bad and hate exercise even more.
People I work with often dislike exercise, so there is never any pressure to exercise during or between sessions. However, it can be helpful for people to do 'experiments' outside of our talking sessions to learn more about their exercise behaviour and try out different ways of doing things.
Adam started to keep an exercise journal (writing down his thoughts and feelings before, during and after exercise). He discovered his difficulties with exercise were driven by the pressure he felt from society to 'exercise in a certain way'. This was coupled with a fear that if people saw him getting out of breath they would judge him for being unfit because of his weight.
As he explored his thoughts and considered alternative ways of looking at exercise, Adam opened up to the possibility that 'healthy movement' need not always be a negative experience.
One key moment was when Paula asked me how I knew the negative thoughts always began at 10 minutes. I realised I was constantly looking at my watch (every minute at least), willing the walk to end and blaming myself for not enjoying it.
During the walks that followed, I made an effort not to look at my watch. It was challenging at first, but soon the urge disappeared and the pressure lifted. I was able to look up and enjoy the beautiful area I lived in. I explored new routes to keep myself interested. Walking no longer led to negative spirals of dark thoughts.
I learned that movement is far more than purposeful exercise, and that every bit of movement counts – from walking to the shops to cleaning the house. I now felt I could take rests during any movement, instead of thinking I 'hadn’t done enough'.
We also explored where my self-blame had come from, and Paula encouraged me to look back on instances from my youth from different perspectives. I was able to see them from a more compassionate viewpoint, and gradually began to stop blaming myself.
Improving the relationship with my body and exercise requires effort and time, and Paula really helped me with this. I am progressing positively in liking myself as I am, regardless of how I look or how much exercise I do.
I’m continuing to see my exercise enjoyment improve. I exercise now out of choice, not because I 'have' to. I can now find ways to fit exercise into my day and make it a positive experience.
For anyone who is struggling with exercise (or is concerned for a friend or family member), I’d like to share a few things I have learned that might be helpful:
Remember you’re not alone. Exercise is difficult for many people, even if we don’t see it talked about often.
Every little helps. Any movement counts, so never feel like you’ve not done enough.
Find your trigger points. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings before, during and after exercise. When do negative spirals start?
Be mindful of the language you use around exercise. It can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing exercise as 'good' and not exercising as 'bad'. This language can be hurtful (to yourself and others). Instead, remind yourself it is ok to move in a way that works for you, and you are a valuable person regardless of how much (or little) exercise you do.
Be kind to yourself, and to others. Find someone you can be open with who will be receptive and non-judgemental, so be open with them, and try not to put pressure on others if they’re struggling.
About our bloggers
Adam, 36, is passionate about supporting mental health causes in his work and personal life, following a period of poor mental health in his early 30s.
He's aware that many people struggle with exercise in the same way he did. He's eager to improve access to information on this subject through this blog and working with Mind.
Paula is a HCPC Registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist working in independent practice. Over the past 2 years, Paula has worked with Mind to help develop resources to support healthy relationships with physical activity.
Where to get support
If Adam’s story resonates with you, or if you're struggling with your feelings about exercise, you can:
Information & Support
When you’re living with a mental health problem, or supporting someone who is, having access to the right information - about a condition, treatment options, or practical issues - is vital. Visit our information pages to find out more.
Share your story with others
Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.