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  • Writer's pictureTom Robinson

The mental 'health' and mental illness exercise conundrum

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

There always seems to be a lot of advice in the media about exercise and how it is good for our mental health - which I don't disagree with, but exercise is completely ineffective for mental illness and today I'll tell you why!

Mental health and mental illness are two separate things and unfortunately the messages we're receiving are confusing us because they are all talking about mental health (well-being) and not mental illness which is something completely different!

If exercise is so good for mental 'health' then why was I struck down by crippling depression when I was competing internationally in horse trials and the fittest I'd ever been?! The same goes for all the other sporting heroes out there like Michael Phelps and Johnny Wilkinson who were competing at top level yet suffering terribly with mental illness.

The problem with mental health / illness is that nobody wants to say the words 'mental illness' because the two words are still so heavily stigmatised, but unfortunately this is not helping the confusion!

Depression and anxiety as well as bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia and all of the others, are mental illnesses. I feel the need to clear this up a bit because an editor the other day changed the title of an article about me to 'This is Tom's very honest and brave battle and account of mental health' and I had to say immediately 'NO! It's my battle with mental ILLNESS!'

Until we normalise the terms in mental health (well-being) and mental illness there will always be confusion, and misunderstanding, This is why it's important to note the distinction between the two because exercise would never have benefitted me when suffering from mental illness, but now that I am well I am finding it a fantastic tool to aid my mental health!

Finding your way out of a horrific battle with mental illness is extremely tough and it starts with conserving energy, challenging distorted thinking, and recognising that this is the illness talking and not me, as well as lots of other tips, strategies and survival techniques all mentioned in my book - which is in the works and hopefully coming - publisher permitting!

All of these techniques need to be adopted and the patient needs to be the 'expert of him/herself' until they finally find a medication and/or treatment that works in combination with everything else. It is not as simple as going for a walk or a run, (I could barely get from bed to bathroom), so please don't say that to people because they're not being lazy, they are fighting/dying to stay alive and using every bit of energy they have to do so!!

Now that I am finally well, of course I advocate exercise for mental health (well-being), because the benefits are enormous both for the physical side and the mental. Getting up at six a.m to go to the yard and ride out is an absolute breeze and I look forward to it now because I find it easy and I enjoy it.

I've not been able to ride, run or even walk really, for years and years at a time, but now I'm back to exercising daily - Do we need any more proof that this is a debilitating illness which sucks every scrap of life, energy and interest away from you?!

As well as riding racehorses and walking up hills for two hours a day, I'm thinking of incorporating more exercise methods into my routine as well.

My sister is a keen triathlete and is always banging on about swimming being so fantastic for the mind. I asked her about this yesterday and she said that the main benefit that she experiences is the freedom from the stress of work (she's a vet) because no one can disturb her or ring her when she's in the water.

I'm interested in that element as well, but I'm also fascinated by the 'cold hydrotherapy' aspect for mental and physical health. I actually used cold water therapy in the form of cold showers - torture! when I was 'dying to stay alive', so next week we are going to Queensford Lakes near where we live in Oxfordshire to go wild swimming!

I love the idea of wild swimming especially, because I think the closeness to nature is important and most beneficial for mental health. I would never work-out in a gym or go indoor swimming because I don't think that being trapped inside is particularly freeing for the mind, and I prefer to be in the great outdoors whenever possible.

The water in the lake is 11 degrees C at the moment which does sound quite cold, but I'm determined to do it because I think it could be the most beneficial form of exercise for my mental health / well-being that I've found yet! - I will let you know how I get on!

I'm getting some amazing messages from people either supporting or looking for help/advice. When I was struggling and literally 'dying to stay alive', I would much rather have heard from someone who'd been there than a doctor or therapist who didn't have a clue about what I was experiencing, so I take great care to reply with as much advice, help and guidance as I possibly can.

I think replying to emails will become a full time job on its own in the future! Please don't hesitate to contact me though, as I am here for everyone and will always do everything I can to help others!

Thanks for reading,

Speak to you soon,


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