Fit body, fit mind

As Fitness First joins a Movember initiative to support men’s health, three Fitness First trainers reveal the big role exercise has played in their mental wellbeing.

When Wilfred Niblett talks about the benefits of exercise for mental health, he’s not just referring to the abundant research proving the link, but also to his own experience.

The PT manager at Fitness First Chatswood, Wilfred struggled with anxiety and depression a couple of years ago, ironically when everything seemed perfect in his life. He had a great job, a wonderful marriage with a child on the way, and his clients adored him as an all-round coach who took on their problems and solved them.

Wilfred with his daughter Charlie and Oscar, his four-day old son at the time of the photo.

What people didn’t see was the crushing pressure that Wilfred felt while trying to keep up that perfect image, except when trivial things would suddenly make him furious with rage or he would burst into tears for the silliest reasons. It didn’t help that Wilfred was also playing to that relentlessly damaging male stereotype that says you keep your problems to yourself.

“One, you don’t want people to feel like you’re weak or perceived to be weak,” he says, looking back. “And two, you don’t want to let your friends down because you’re the guy they come to with their challenges.”

After seeking professional help, Wilfred was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

“It was quite a difficult challenge. I was just in such a hard place, I didn’t feel like I could reach out. It took fitness to get me through that. One of the first things I did was make exercise an important part of managing my mental health,” he says. “I just started training twice a day. I’d eat healthy. I’d go to the beach. I had this routine every day that was my thing. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it.”

“When you start to look at the way the chemicals work, all your happy hormones, your serotonin and endorphins, all those beautiful things come out of exercising and training your body,” Wilfred adds. “There’s also the positive change in your body. You feel stronger, you feel more confident, you move better. You’re not hurting so much and you’re sleeping better.”

Exercise works

One of the main discoveries in health over the last few years has been that exercise is not just beneficial for our physical fitness, but it’s also great for mental wellbeing and reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Exactly how it does that is complex, but a simple explanation is that when you exercise, an improved blood supply delivers more oxygen and nutrients to certain parts of the brain, which also experience a growth in neurons and connections.

Research has also shown that you don’t need to train excessively to get the benefits. A recent study published in The Lancet showed that just two hours of any form of exercise each week could make a significant impact on a person’s mental wellbeing. In other words, the mental health benefits of exercise are within reach for most people.

Jordan with Ashlee Evans, a Fitness First PT manager whose constant support helped stabilise Jordan’s community.

Keeping the mind at bay

Wilfred Niblett isn’t the only high-profile Fitness First trainer to see the value of exercise for mental wellbeing. Another is Jordan Smith, who is a PT manager at Fitness First Mosman.

A few years ago, Jordan suffered from a kind of anxiety that’s all too common in elite athletes. As a junior national and Oceania judo champion, Jordan was undefeated for several years. But when he lost to a highly rated opponent, his world caved in, because much of his self-image was based on his success in judo.

“I was just mentally broken,” Jordan says. He rebuilt himself with the help of a psychologist and a personal trainer, and points to three principles that also helped him, calling them “Education, Vulnerability and Community”.

With Education, Jordan refers to the need to understand the impact that continual stress has on the mind, and appreciating the benefits of sleep, good nutrition and exercise. Understanding how your self-image impacts your mental wellbeing is also part of his Education pillar.

His Vulnerability principle says it’s fine not to be strong all the time. “It’s OK to say I feel shit today,” he says. And his third principle, Community, means creating networks to remind yourself that you’re not alone.

Beyond his principles, exercise helped Jordan enormously. “For me, I know I’m prone to severe anxiety due to my overly analytical perception of daily things, so I’ve found that setting aside a good 20-30 minutes a day as ‘my time’ keeps my mind at bay and keeps me focused on the present,” he reveals.

“The things I do are varied and heavily based on my mood. If I’m stressed, I’ll generally do a HIIT combat-based workout. If I’m distracted and lacking focus, I’ll do a skills-based workout that requires slow, controlled exercising; for example, calisthenics, rings, acrobatics or gymnastics.“

Mike with his daughter Matilda, who helped him focus on what was really important in his life.

Battaglia’s battle

Our third man on the cover, Mike Battaglia, is the PT manager at Fitness First Dee Why. Unlike Wilfred and Jordan, Mike had to deal with mental health issues from an early age, before he became a PT.

He grew up in a family environment that was so challenging, he worked up the courage to see a psychologist at 15 years of age without telling his parents. However, when he became a trainer at 17, things didn’t get any easier.

“When you’re in the fitness industry, you and your clients and the people around you create this perception that you’re the picture of health and that you have it all together,” Mike says. “I felt like I was living this massive facade in which I was getting great results with other people’s health and giving them all the advice in the world, and they had no idea just how difficult it was for me to actually get to work.”

Mike says that seeking help is what saved him, and while he could have stopped seeing his therapist a long time ago after conquering his anxiety, he kept seeing her because of the value she adds to his life.

“I don’t look at my therapist as someone who is dealing with me because I haven’t got my shit together. I look at her as someone who gives me an education for my mind,” he explains.

“Every decision I make is governed by my mind. I think everybody should have a coach for their mind because every decision you make, every relationship you have, who’s giving you guidance on that?”

Mike describes his principles for dealing with anxiety as “controlling the controllable”.

“You might have a workload which is ridiculous or you might have three kids under the age of five, which will tax anyone. But you can control the fact that you’ll always feel better for doing something in the gym. You’ll always feel better for making a better decision with nutrition. You will always feel better for surrounding yourself with like-minded people,” he says.

Another controllable aspect is how much time you devote to yourself, he adds. “When was the last time you set aside time during the week to do something that was not essential, that just made you happy? For me, it might be fishing or riding my motorbike. It might only be 10, 20 minutes a week, but it’s that important because you go through the whole day trying to please everybody else. No-one on their deathbed said, ‘I wish I had worked some more.’”

Mike’s daughter Matilda played a part in making him and his partner Kristy realise what was important. He’d come home exhausted and notice that Matilda wasn’t interested in his day at work. She wanted to play with him in their time together and he was often too tired. So Mike started taking time out for himself from work and found that exercise helped him become more mindful.

“What I mean by this is that I had to focus on what was happening right now, whether it be a boxing combination or a particular movement,” he says. “Concentrating on these was an alternative to worrying about the pressures and anxieties of the past or the future. Therapists are always encouraging people to practice mindfulness. Exercise is a phenomenal example of this.”

The effect on their clients

It was inevitable that Wilfred, Jordan and Mike would notice the impact of exercise on the wellbeing of some of their clients, too.

“My favourite definition of health is basically taking responsibility for yourself. At the root of a lot of mental health issues is a lack of self-esteem. When my clients exercise, they always feel better in multiple ways,” Mike says.

“A workout tends to want someone to choose a healthy meal after training. This process of small consistent behaviours snowballs into an infectious cycle of taking responsibility for all areas of your health and happiness. Increased self-esteem and a sense of achievement are what you can expect from this process.”

Wilfred says one of the first things his clients or their partners might notice after exercise is that sleep quality improves, which then helps with stress management and recovery, as well as weight management. “You’ll see skill acquisition and weight gain, or weight loss, improve out of sight, especially if they’ve been struggling for some time,” he says.

Jordan adds, ”I’ve trained a lot of high-profile clients in CEO-level jobs and I can tell by the way they move that they’re stressed. They generally move like robots and don’t like anything that they can’t see instant value in. The first thing I get them to do is stop thinking and start moving, because I know motion equals emotion – and once I get the emotion from them, the shoulders relax, the legs stretch out and the robotic nature disappears.”

The Movember foundation

Such is the importance of exercise to mental health that a leading global charity dedicated to men’s health, the Movember Foundation, has included a fitness initiative in its 2018 campaign, of which Fitness First is an official supporter. The Movember Foundation wants to raise awareness of several issues faced by men, including prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health and suicide prevention. It points out that more than 2000 Australian men die by suicide each year, and three out of four suicides in Australia are by men. Globally, one man commits suicide every minute.

To highlight this unfolding crisis, Movember has joined forces with Fitness First to promote the MOVE initiative, in which you walk or run a distance of 60km in November and ask people to sponsor you. That’s 60km for the 60 men lost to suicide every hour, every day. Fitness First will be encouraging clubs, members and non-members to participate and raise funds in support of the MOVE project.

To take part, go to au.movember.com/mospace and sign up. Here, you accept your 60km challenge and choose to enter solo or as part of a team.

You’ll then be given a fundraising page on which you can set your own fundraising target or aim for set amounts all the way up to the “Mo Legend” category, which requires you to raise $2000. The page allows you to ask for donations from friends, letting you send a message where you pick which particular Movember program you’re supporting.

Then, all you need to do is move 60km during the month. If that sounds like a lot, just remember that 10,000 steps a day equals 9km. That’s just seven days in which you can meet your fitness tracker’s 10,000-step daily goal.