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Mental health: The forgotten side of the fitness industry

Belfast PT Alan Waterman looks at how physical health can easily cover-up mental health issues.

By Alan Waterman

Having worked in the fitness industry for nearly 6 years, there’s one thing which I can say is apparent - as people, and as personal trainers, we typically define health in a very specific way.

Determining whether someone is “healthy” or “unhealthy” ultimately comes down to how a person looks, their fitness levels, their diet, and whether they suffer from any specific physical health conditions - that’s just how life works in the fitness industry.

Yes, we can look at someone in appears to be in peak physical condition, who eats a nutritious diet, maintains high levels of fitness, and dodges illness or medical complications and assert they are “healthy”, but in truth, doing so means we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle…

And the problem is that it’s often not easy to see.

Physical health is one thing, but mental health, despite being something which can dramatically impact and affect someone’s life, is an often overlooked component of a person’s wellbeing.

I can unfortunately say that I have experienced first-hand the effects of mental illness on quality of life, happiness, and ultimately health; I am fit, not overweight, I eat well, and I am outwardly “healthy”, but the 4-year battle with anorexia I experienced in early adulthood, and the more recent diagnosis of an anxiety disorder which I live with day-to-day, demonstrates that despite physical appearances, mentally, my health has suffered, and continues to suffer.

I can say with certainty that “health” is nowhere near as black and white as we often make it out to be.

In fitness, we get so caught up talking about bodyfat levels, bodyweight, aerobic fitness abilities, and food choices, that we neglect to address hugely important factors which affect our mental health.

Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and substance dependence, are, amongst many others, all life-altering, potentially debilitating conditions, and all which can manifest themselves in a person who may seem outwardly “healthy”.

In truth, it’s not uncommon - the statistics are staggering…

Mental health problems have been shown to be one of the main causes of the worldwide disease burden, with depression listed as the worldwide second leading cause of lives lived with disability.

In the UK alone, 1 in 4 adults each year will experience a mental illness, and those who suffer can be expected to die as much as 10 to 20 years earlier than those in the general population (which leads mental illness to statistically have a greater impact on life expectancy than heavy smoking.)

When mental health conditions are shown to have as much of a health impact as some of the leading physical, largely preventable physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, why shouldn’t we be considering illnesses which affect our minds on a par with those which affect our bodies?                                                                            

When it comes to optimizing and improving our own health, we need to begin to see beyond the scope of how we look and feel physically, recognising signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, or even just acknowledging when things don’t quite feel as they normally do…

We don’t hesitate to make changes when we realise we may have become overweight or notice our fitness levels have declined, and we seek medical assistance when our bodies behave differently, or show signs of change. We take action when we notice an issue with our physical wellbeing - looking after our mental health means that we do the same.

When we talk about health, we have to remember that “health” goes much, much further beyond how our body looks and feels.

Health means taking care of our minds too.

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