Mirror message at the gym




At the risk of incurring the wrath of the fitness industry: I don’t agree.

My first thought when I saw and snapped this image was: ‘YES – so true.’

But then I stopped to think about how this statement applies to me and my exercise habits. I realised it was simplistic at best, and dangerous at worst. Here’s why:

The harder the work out, the better is a blanket statement. Instead of following a mindless mantra, we should each ask ourselves every time we exercise whether what we have planned for that session will heal or hurt us.

Evidence shows that exercise is good for our mental health, even if we don’t suffer from a mental illness. I imagine it is reasonably common knowledge that the key to making exercise a sustainable habit is finding something you like, or at least don’t hate, that suits your lifestyle.

But especially when it comes to exercise and mental illness I believe a more nuanced approach than ‘Go hard or go home!’ is needed. I’d agree that for sufferers of Depression and/or Anxiety (and no concurrent exercise limiting disorders), the harder the workout, the higher the endorphin levels, the greater the benefits. And if Anxiety or Depression are at the milder end of the spectrum, using exercise as part of a management plan can sometimes avoid the need for medication.

However, if you are suffering Mania or Psychosis it becomes almost impossible to listen to your body and limit yourself to what is safe for you.

Three years ago, while hospitalised during a manic/psychotic episode, I jogged up and down the steep hill the hospital is on for hours at a time on almost no sleep. I was fit enough to do this, but I gave myself plantar fasciitis (damage and inflammation to the tendons on the sole of the foot and heel). It took physiotherapy, wearing orthotics, and giving up jumping and running exercise for two years for it to resolve.

Exercising when unwell with Bipolar Disorder is tricky. I’ve taught myself to do the opposite of what I feel like doing. Mania means taking everything down several notches. Yoga is one option, but can be frustrating if your symptoms include the inability to concentrate. You can continue your normal exercise, even if it includes hill jogging, but set yourself a timer so that you don’t injure yourself. And be aware that if manic symptoms are severe, they will give you every excuse you need to ignore a timer. In this case designating a person to remind you when to stop may be helpful. The stimulating environment of a gym with loud music, and TV screens can worsen manic and psychotic symptoms, so is best avoided until symptoms subside.

For me, depressive episodes are less common, but when they hit, I go low to the point of catatonic depression. I can barely eat, move, or even breathe. So, it is a huge challenge to force myself to move. With symptoms of this severity, medication and sometimes ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) are crucial to my recovery. But once these other therapies have started working, pushing myself to exercise gets me well faster.

My hospital now has a gym, which is fantastic, but it’s a relatively recent addition, and certainly not a given in every psychiatric hospital or ward. I have also learnt with experience to pack my yoga mat when I go in to hospital. This means I can do stretches and yoga in my room, even if it’s raining, or I am on fifteen minute observations, both of which mean I can’t get outside for a walk.

For me, exercising four to six times a week is close to non-negotiable. When I’m well, it helps keep me that way. When I’m not, it helps stabilise me.

That doesn’t mean I always feel like it, which is also why I believe the slogan of working out on good days and working out harder on bad days is not always helpful. On some bad days, the idea of working out harder is so overwhelming it could stop me from showing up at all. On those days I trick my brain by telling it:

‘We’ll just do ten minutes and that’s it.’

After ten minutes of exercise my endorphins have started to kick in and 99% of the time I’m happy to keep going for longer. And if I don’t feel like continuing after that first ten minutes, then I accept that maybe today isn’t the day I should be working out harder.

But I will have done ten minutes…. which is better than nothing.

For more on my experience of treatments for Bipolar 1 Disorder, you may be interested in:

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 1

ECT: Blowing up some myths – Part 2


Making Sense Of It




Author: anitalinkthoughtfood

Writer, Mental Health Advocate, Veterinarian For more, visit me at Thought Food.

4 thoughts on “#NotFitspo”

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