Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Mindful life: I know as a psychiatrist I should do more exercise. But it isn’t always easy

I can empathise with my patients' struggles to exercise as I am not a natural sportsperson
April 5, 2023

Last week, I bought myself some running shoes in what was supposed to be the final step before I relaunched my running career. “Career” may be a slight exaggeration—I’m no athlete—but several years ago, like many other exercise novices, I pounded the streets doing the Couch to 5K challenge. I continued running for a while afterwards and felt better for it. Sadly, I never reached that blissful “zone” that runners talk about, but running became less painful. Now, as I look at my box-fresh trainers, I regret that I gave it up.

I am small of stature and not very well-coordinated—maybe that’s why I never found a competitive sport in my youth that suited me. In fact, I considered myself “bad at sport”, which discouraged me further. Over the years, I’ve tried various forms of exercise, from swimming to cycling to going to the gym. I have even tried lifting weights. I am quite self-conscious, which has impeded my progress in all these sports, but my bigger problem is actually getting to a leisure centre. If I lived next to one,  maybe I would manage to go more often, but I live in a city that is hilly, cold and windy. 

As a psychiatrist, I am delighted when my patients bring up exercise as something they plan to do to maintain their health. However, it’s harder when a patient is, like me, not a natural exerciser. I work with a fantastic occupational therapist who gets gym passes for people. Perhaps we should also organise for people to be accompanied to the gym, at least initially, as they will then be much more likely to carry on going.

Sometimes, I think that my problem is that I’ve never discovered my true sport and that, when I do, I will enjoy it in its entirety. When I am more honest with myself, I think I’m just a bit of a slob. Ultimately, I know I need to choose the activity that is least unpleasant and force myself to do it because I strongly believe in the benefits of exercise, particularly for those of us with mental health problems. I am also taking medication that has made me gain weight in the past—drugs for mental disorders are particularly bad for this side effect. I hope exercise will help me to limit my weight gain and avoid a relapse in my depression. 

I suspect there are many people like me, who know they should exercise but find it hard to initiate or maintain. When I’m depressed, I feel exhausted and even less like engaging in physical exercise than usual.  I am sure that just telling people to exercise is futile. Basically, exercise needs to be made easy and should preferably become part of your routine. I’m much less likely to skive if it just happens on my route to and from work. 

I’m walking more these days, and feel better—and quite pleased with myself—as a result. But will those running shoes come out of their box? It is extremely easy to find reasons not to run, with damage to joints, especially knees, being top of the list. I know in reality that I felt much better when I ran two or three times a week. And the process is so easy: you just go straight outside, there’s no need to interact with others and it doesn’t take long. You can go as slowly as you like, and as short a distance as you wish. I think I may have talked myself into it!