Exercise and mental health – part 1

Most people would be familiar with the physical benefits that come with exercise…and the physical improvements also come with some great benefits to mental health. But unfortunately, exercise can also result in some negative effects to mental health too. In this 2 part post, I will discuss both the good and the bad, beginning with the downsides which can appear.


While exercise is usually healthy, sometimes people can go a little bit too far. Overtraining is where rest and recovery are ignored, but exercise addiction is different. This is where people lose perspective, and start to put exercise above everything else.

Usually, athletes are able to find a balance between everything in their life; managing to fit exercise around their family, work and social life. But when somebody develops exercise addiction, they value their exercise above everything else. Any free amount of time is devoted to exercise; and other life commitments are ignored in order to focus on training. Exercise and training continue regardless of things such as fatigue, injury and illness.

For many, as exercise addiction begins to appear, mental health issues also start to show. The idea of not exercising or missing a training session causes anxiety…and overtime this can lead to depression. The following checklist, developed by Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, can help to identify if you may be developing exercise addiction.

• I have missed important social obligations and family events in order to exercise.
• I have given up other interests, including time with friends, in order to make more time to work out.
• Missing a workout makes me irritable and depressed.
• I only feel content when I am exercising or within the hour after exercising.
• I like exercise better than sex, good food, or a movie — in fact there’s almost nothing I’d rather do.
• I work out even if I’m sick, injured, or exhausted. I’ll feel better when I get moving anyway.
• In addition to my regular schedule, I’ll exercise more if I find extra time.
• Family and friends have told me I’m too involved in exercise.
•I have a history (or a family history) of anxiety or depression.

If you have checked three or more of these items, you may be losing your perspective on training or working out. Exercise is healthy as long as it is in balance with a full life.

unhappy athlete_0

Any competitive athlete knows that in order to improve, you need to train. However, solid training doesn’t always result in the gains in performance that athletes may be expecting. Improvements may be less than expected, or not there at all. While most athletes will just move on and try another training regime, a lack of performance gains may cause unwanted stress for some. Over a period of time, that stress may impact training…..which could eventually develop into anxiety and, possibly, depression.

Elite athletes, especially those whose livelihood relies on their sport, there is always an underlying pressure to be at your best; and be better than the competition! This pressure can of course cause some stress…..for some athletes, this constant pressure and stress can be a bit too much. Again, anxiety and depression can be the result.



While athletes will generally have a healthy body as a result of their sport, some will find their physical appearance may be a little distressing. Depending on what type of exercise they do, athletes may have over-developed muscles; low body fat may give a “gaunt” look; or even the general “athletic” build may not be desirable for some…..these things may lead to body image issues for a small percentage of athletes.


Professional athletes can devote a very large amount of time and focus to their sport. Competing at the highest level takes dedication and a huge level of commitment, over quite a few years. For many, their sport is their entire life. But when an athlete decides to retire from professional sports, problems can appear.

Having devoted such a big part of their lives to training and competing, upon retirement athletes can sometimes feel a bit lost. Trying to find a new career path can be a daunting prospect, especially if somebody has had no formal training, education or experience outside of their life as an athlete.

Again, this problem can lead to severe anxiety and depression; with the result often leading to tragedy…..some retired professional athletes have ended their own lives after struggling with mental health issues for a period of time.

Fortunately, many professional sports teams are trying to address this issue, by providing their athletes with education and training for possible future career paths while they are still competing…..some lower level teams even have a policy stating that all athletes must have a part time job outside of their sport. Both of these ideas are a positive step forward for everybody involved.


As stated already, there are many things associated with training and exercise that can cause mental health problems; which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is where an individual feels anxious, stressed or worried most or all of the time, even though there is little or nothing to be stressed about. Depression occurs when a person feels sad, moody or irritable for an extended period of time; often without an apparent reason. Both of these conditions can have a significant impact on a person’s mental wellbeing and quality of life.
Fortunately, there is always help available. Speak to your friends and family. Have a chat to your GP. Head to a sports psychologist…..and of course keep and eye out for each other! If you are part of a sports club or have friends who are heavily involved in training and exercise, look out for any changes in behaviour and have a chat to your mates if you think they may be suffering.

There are many anti-depressants and anxiety medications on the market, which can help keep depression and anxiety under control. Of course, these are not a cure to the problem; instead, they help to keep these conditions manageable, while you seek additional help to resolve the real issues which are causing the mental health problems.
Although these medications do have some side effects, most of them will have a limited impact on performance, and won’t be found on the WADA banned substances list. If you have any questions about medications for anxiety and depression, feel free to contact me….I am more than happy to help 🙂


If you are suffering from any mental health issues, please don’t suffer in silence. Seek help. At the very least, talk to your family and friends about any problems you may be having. Groups such as Beyond Blue, RUOk? and LifeLine can provide assistance for anybody in need; and you should get in contact with a psychologist or sports psychologist to help get any problems you may be experiencing under control. You should never suffer alone….be sure to talk to somebody if you think you are experiencing any mental health issues.

Please, please, please…..do not suffer in silence.

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