Current “wisdom” encourages individuals to exercise as a solution to just about every ailment imaginable and this is understandable given all the evidence that exercise has numerous benefits to overall health and well-being. But for individuals who struggle with mental health, even getting started is a challenge. A recent article by the BBC highlights a new sports program in England attempting to overcome obstacles to physical activity and exercise for individuals with mental health issues. I see this as a positive development, however simply prescribing exercise may not be an option for everyone.
In my experience, a critical step to improving mental health is addressing self-regulation; something which is vital to daily life. Individuals who suffer with anxiety and depression often experience difficulties with self-regulation that negatively impact motivation, sleeping patterns and eating habits. Simply adding exercise to the daily routine of an individual who is already under resourced and strained may garner some benefits, but is likely to result in self-regulation failure in the long run.
I have found that integrating exercise within the context of the counselling process, something I call Experiential Exercise Psychotherapy (or EXP for short), holds promise for those who encounter mental health and self-regulation challenges. By improving self-regulation skills that combine physical/social and cognitive/emotional strength building, individuals experience incremental gains that create a foundation for further growth.
When I began developing and using the principles of EXP (where body, mind and brain activities were continuously integrated within the therapeutic relationship), clients successes became apparent across a spectrum of life activities. So while I support participation in exercise and sport activities wholeheartedly, I am skeptical about prescribing it as a standalone antidote for individuals struggling with poor self-regulation and mental health issues.