Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

Charlotte Willis shows us how keeping on top of our bodies can keep our minds in great shape…

Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

We’re all too familiar with the benefits of physical exercise for our physical health. But curing depression, taming anxiety and helping us cope with bereavement? These are the perhaps lesser-known advantages for those of us that choose the weight bench over the counsellors’ chaise longue. Charlotte Willis invites us into her world of fitness-therapy.

I’m midway through a brutal squat sequence at the start of my hamstring and glute workout. 10 reps for a total of 10 sets with a little over my bodyweight in Kgs resting across an Olympic bar, positioned just below my shoulders on the upper area of my back. I’m fatigued. I’m breathless. Oh, and did I mention, I’ve just finished an 8-hour shift at work? But here I stand, in a weights room, pushing out my personal best. Welcome to my therapy suite, the doctor will see you now.

Beyond Physical Health

For myself and many others whom share the same mentality, the feeling of getting hot and heavy in a room full of people and heavy objects is the ultimate way to, urm, relax and unwind. In fact, the most relaxing part of my day, is totally exhausting myself at the gym.

I wholly endorse those all-important physical benefits to increased activity and movement. You’ll improve the health of your body and cardiovascular system, boost your energy levels and support your body’s skeletal system. With regular visits, you’ll feel fitter, and if you’re eating the right foods your body will reflect and reward your efforts with those all-important physical definitions (aka gains) we all strive to achieve (gigantic glutes anyone..? Just me then). But the reason why many people become hooked on exercise is due to the varied non-physical advantages that a gym membership brings.

Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

Sweat The Small Stuff. Literally.

I first turned to exercise when I became increasingly stressed during my first year at university. The freedom of being but a short walk away from a well-equipped gym paired with pressure, stress and anxiety resulted in a 6-day-a-week relationship with the gym. And it’s been love at first lift ever since.

I’m not alone. Anxiety UK, alongside the Mental Health Foundation, launched a campaign in 2013 aimed at encouraging us to incorporate regular physical exercise into our daily routines in order to safeguard our minds. The Lets Get Physical campaign explains how ‘Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress and research has shown that physically fit individuals have a reduced stress response.’

When we exercise, we produce smaller amounts of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This is an adaptive response to our exercise and helps us to push ourselves through mental barriers, and it is believed that these smaller bursts at controlled intervals act to prime our bodies for future stress. Working out before going off to work is the optimum opportunity to set your mental health up for a busy schedule. Even as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise is enough to engage your brain, aiding mental clarity and helping ease you into your day.

Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

Heal Yourself

According to research by Oxford University, regular participation in exercise whereby the heart rate is elevated for an extended period of time can be as effective at helping control and diminish the symptoms of mild anxiety and depression as commonly prescribed medications. Ranging from insomnia, racing thoughts and low mood – exercise has been shown time and time again to aid in recovery from mental illness.

Even recovery from more severe disorders such as Schizophrenia have been proven to be aided by exercise. Participants took part in an intervention study whereby a course of regular exercise was incorporated into their treatment programme. Their symptoms were compared to those of a control group, who were given medication only. The results showed the exercise intervention group to have reduced social-withdrawal, reduced mental and physical lethargy and a heightened self-esteem.

To me, it makes sense. Get people moving and their bodies respond positively over time. Including a structured exercise programme into mental health treatment is something that I believe is grossly overlooked by regular medicine. 

Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

Exercise Those Demons

A revolutionary new therapy of self-healing: Dynamic Running Therapy involves a session with a qualified therapist or counsellor, where you will be guided on a route through not only the chosen running area, but also through your own thoughts and feelings. Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT) is designed to help aid mental clarity, by allowing more oxygen to be pumped around the body and encourage you to use mental frustration to fuel your workout further. The feeling of running forwards allows you to associate talking therapy with making (quite literal) positive steps forward. The result? You’re more likely to open up and feel a sense of release, relief and contentment with your therapy. DRT has been anecdotally shown to aid in stress, anxiety and bereavement relief.

No Pain. No Mental Gain.

There’s nothing I hate more than the gym selfie. This being said, no one can deny the immense feeling of accomplishment you achieve by sticking to a regular exercise programme. Seeing yourself grow stronger, fitter, faster and more muscular – it gives you a sense of pride in what you are doing and how far you will be able to go. Self-esteem is enhanced by regular exercise, and when we feel better about ourselves, we approach our lives with more positivity. It’s not just about looking better – the physical or shape-enhancing benefit of training is an afterthought for most of my regular gym-going friends!

Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

Resistance Is Not So Futile

In my opinion, the most complete and health-promoting programmes will be inclusive of both strength/weight-based training with aerobic exercise. Below are some of my top tips for utilising your workouts to aid your mental health. Get up. Get out. Sweat on. Let it out!


Allow yourself to focus on your body. Making mind-to-muscle connections will help you grow and develop your body, and help ward off those wandering thoughts.

Workout early

Get up early and get a workout in before you start your working day. Take it from me, there’s nothing better than feeling fired up for the rest of the day, pumped full of endorphins and adrenaline! You’ll awaken your mind and body, and stimulate your brain early in the day – reaping creative benefits later on.

Move it or lose it: How to keep your mind and body in shape

Find a plan. Stick to it

Write yourself an exercise plan which incorporates one or two restful days, with a few days of weight training and a few including cardiovascular exercises. But the golden rule? You have to stick to it. No excuses. Showing self-efficacy and commitment to your fitness will heighten your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment more than hitting that snooze button. Just remember to be realistic in your goals.

About the author

Charlotte is a student researcher of nutrition and human disease. As well as working as a staff writer for Free-From Heaven and Vegan Food & Living, Charlotte also writes for The Vegan Society and online publications.