The relationship between mental health and fitness is a beautiful one. Studies have likened the effects of exercise to those of drugs used to treat anxiety and depression, and many use fitness as a healthy way to cope with these ailments. It also helps that gym memberships are cheaper than therapy. However, when things get tough and you turn to fitness more and more to cope, this relationship can become harmful. Just because fitness is a healthy choice, doesn’t mean you can’t have too much of it.
Balance Is Key
Very few people would argue with the fact that balance is important in life. The balance between work and play is especially important for our mental health, and fitness is a great “play” activity to engage in. Many people cite it as the thing that keeps them sane throughout the week, allowing them to deal with stress and other difficulties in life. However, while they may have found the balance between work and play successfully, many fail to uphold the same balance within fitness itself.
Visiting the “pain cave” to deal with stress can be highly effective. Although some may view it as a form of masochism, it allows you work out your frustrations in a healthy way and, usually, your mind is clearer and your problems seem smaller afterward. The problem arises when you end up visiting that cave regularly, as in multiple times per week. There is a fine line between pushing hard and overtraining. Even though working out is a great form of stress relief, it also takes a toll on the body. Putting yourself through that ordeal too often eventually becomes more than your body can handle.
The physical effects that result from fitness are pretty easy to see. Muscle growth, overall strength, and better cardiovascular efficiency are just a few noticeable improvements. But the mental effects of exercise are just as profound. Through better blood supply, our neuronal health is improved which, simply put, makes our brain happy. If our brain is happy, so are we. Exercise improves our brain function so much that it can improve mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and mood instability. However, too much exercise can reverse these benefits. Some of the symptoms of overtraining align very closely with those of depression, such as adrenal dysfunction. This throws off our brain chemistry and, as a result, our brain becomes unhappy. Thus, even though fitness is a healthy, effective tool used to combat mental health issues, too much of it can bring on the very effects you were hoping to avoid.
Without the balance between work and rest, you risk putting yourself into such a physical and mental deficit that your go-to coping mechanism becomes unhealthy. Continuing in this fashion takes a beautiful relationship between mental health and fitness and turns it into an activity that actually reinforces your harmful mental state. That was likely never the intention, but it must be addressed quickly to re-establish proper balance.
Building Mental Toughness
Paying attention to your problems is not fun. It makes you feel anxious and vulnerable, so you go to the gym and crush a workout instead because that helps you forget. But that doesn’t last long. You may feel more in control and relaxed for a few hours, but sooner or later that problem will come back around and ask to be dealt with. Your state of readiness will not matter.
Mental toughness is something that many athletes attempt to develop. It is necessary for pushing through hard workouts and competing under pressure, but true mental fortitude is not limited to gym activities. If you can push through a challenging workout, but refuse to deal with problems at home, you are not mentally tough. On the contrary, you are mentally dependent on the rush of adrenaline or state of exhaustion brought on by the workout you just finished. You didn’t accomplish or solve anything by ending the workout in a puddle of your own sweat. You merely distracted yourself from whatever issue was asking to be dealt with and took three steps back in the process of actually solving it.
To build true, lasting mental toughness, you need to give yourself opportunities to develop it in a variety of settings. Start small. Actively make decisions to deal with issues as they arise and let yourself learn. If you are uncomfortable with confrontation, find a small opportunity to confront someone and practice, rather than waiting until you are forced to do it. This is the same thing we do in the gym every day. If we find a weakness, we give ourselves more opportunities to work on that weakness until it gets stronger. If you approach your life with as much attention and focus as you do training, you will see weaknesses improve outside of the gym as well.
Fitness Is Not The End All Be All
When it comes to dealing with stress or mental health issues, fitness does provide a healthy outlet. However, expecting it to solve your problems for you is too much to ask. It is only a temporary solution; a management tool. You may be physically healthier than the person who uses food or drugs to cope, but if you are consistently pushing your body past its limits to escape another area of your life, you’ve turned fitness into nothing more than another crutch.
Instead of running to the gym everyday, give your body a chance to rest and actively deal with what you’ve been trying to avoid. Distracting yourself, even with healthy alternatives, will never solve the root of your problems. It takes focused, intentional work to make real progress. Just like you spend hours practicing and perfecting movements in the gym, it takes hours of practice to improve thought patterns and solve problems. Don’t give up. Find balance within fitness and learn to solve your own problems.