The Symbiotic Relationship Between Physical and Mental Wellbeing
November is the start of Men’s Health Awareness Month, also known as ‘Movember’. It is an annual global campaign that encourages men to grow moustaches and participate in various activities. The aim is to raise awareness about men’s health issues. These include prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health challenges, and suicide prevention.
During this month, the focus is on promoting open dialogue for men to discuss their health openly and seek support. One of the main aims is to take proactive steps towards a healthier and happier life.
Today, we have enlisted the help of a long-time FFF ambassador Simon Walter. Simon will be discussing the relationship between physical and mental well-being.
It’s that time of year again when we get to talk about mental health. We all know it shouldn’t be this way. We all realise we should be able to talk to people about our mental health, reach out for help, and ask friends and family for support. However, for many of us, it is not that easy.
For years there has been a stigma attached to mental illness, being ‘weak’, and showing too much emotion. This has left many people (including myself) isolated, alone, unhappy, and unwell.
The stigma around mental health and reaching out for help is gradually being broken down. However, there is still a lot more we can do for others, and ourselves. It’s often not as simple as telling people to ‘speak up’ and ask for help.
I spent my early childhood non-verbal. Once I started school and progressed into my early teens, I found it almost impossible to make friends and form relationships. I didn’t ask for help, and I didn’t look for support. In fact, I had no clue what was wrong or why I was different. I knew I wasn’t happy; I had no idea why. I was, and still am Autistic. I just thought I was weird and no fun to be around.
The hardest thing in my journey was that I was ‘kind of okay’. I was not causing trouble at school, not falling behind with academic work, and was physically as capable as my peers. From the outside looking in I was a normal kid, maybe a little awkward, but nothing out of the ordinary. I was lucky enough, however, to have parents who didn’t want to settle for okay. They couldn’t find the support they needed from doctors. As a result, they sought alternative ways to support me.
Being unable to make friends afforded me more time in the garden with my family engaging in sport. This led to a realisation that when I was playing any sport that required communication, my confidence soared. The fact I had confidence in my physical ability to play sports, gave me the ability to communicate my ideas and to express myself verbally. It also gave me a place where I felt a sense of belonging.
My parents enrolled me in football clubs, sent me out rowing, and invested as much time as they could in putting me in a place where I felt confident. When I was on a football pitch I could shout for the ball, call instructions to teammates, and be part of a team. This was huge for me and the first time I remember feeling good in my own skin.
We Still Need to Talk
The success I had playing sports had helped with my mental health. Training meant I was physically healthy, had energy, and felt strong and capable. Into adulthood, I still valued these attributes massively. While I still had lots of difficulties, suffered with depression, and struggled with relationships, I was still getting on okay. When I was formally diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and supported for my depression with therapy, I was able to be truly happy for the first time. It was clear I needed to talk. I needed to ask for help. I needed to receive the support I finally did.
I will still never underestimate the impact health, fitness, and team sports had on me. Finding physical wellness can play a huge role in our mental health. This led me to where I am today. This led me to a place where I am open about being Autistic, where I actively engage in coaching and the health and fitness community. I also try to highlight all the amazing ways it has changed my life.
Training and Mental Health
Being physically fit and healthy does some amazing things for the body, it also helps the mind in a lot of ways. Falling in love with the journey of fitness connects us to other like-minded people. It also puts us in a great place to ask for help when we need it. The pursuit of something difficult, the act of self-improvement, perseverance, and having to work hard to be good at something can really help us embrace our strengths and weaknesses. If we can ask for help with our physical pursuits, it can sometimes give us the confidence to ask for help with our mental health.
For me, training and then nutrition (which go hand in hand) outside of the above, provide three pillars for us to feel better, and support our journeys towards better mental health.
- Feeling capable – Feeling strong, having energy, and feeling like you are achieving things on a daily basis can be amazing for our confidence. Whether it’s setting a new squat PR, hitting a goal time for a 2km row, or showing up to a spin class daily. It helps us feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.
- Feeling healthy – when we focus on our nutrition, keeping active, and doing things that we know are right for our bodies, we simply feel better. The things in daily life that are sent to test us seem a little easier and our immune system is more resilient. We can push through tough days a little better and with a bit more spring in our step.
- Feeling like we belong – Whether it’s the 6 a.m. CrossFit class, the camaraderie of lifting something heavy with a friend, or the chat after your evening HIIT class, fitness, sport, and health pursuits bring us together. The shared suffering, the competition, the coffee or brunch after a sweaty Saturday session. Whichever of those elements means the most to us, we can find it. We find coaches and instructors who are passionate about our success. We make friends, form relationships, and grow our support networks.
Treating Our Brains Like Our Bodies
One last part about mental health and physical fitness and the links between the two are the notions of self-care and self-awareness.
Being physically fit, eating well, sleeping well and prioritising these important factors in our lives, truly is about caring for ourselves. We treat our bodies well because the harder we work on being healthy, the more we are able to enjoy life, travel, time with friends and family.
If we go a little astray, we get injured, we start eating junk food, we don’t just ignore these things. We act upon injuries and seek out help, we prioritise good quality food and rest as we know it will make us feel better. We seek out coaches and PTs if we want to get better at particular sports or forms of exercise. In this sense, we are teaching ourselves to ask for help and support when we need it. We are teaching ourselves what it feels like to feel good, to be healthy and happy. We are hopefully teaching ourselves to apply these principles to our mental health.
At the very least, we are providing ourselves with more energy and resilience to tackle difficulties. At our best, we are developing physical and mental resilience, forming support networks, and learning how to put our physical and mental health first.
There is no stigma attached to scaling back a workout we are not capable of completing. There is no stigma in asking the coach, or a training partner for advice or support to complete physical pursuits. Let’s make sure there is no stigma around reaching out for support with our mental health.
Simon Walter | MSc Human Performance Science & Nutrition. Coach, Dog Dad.