page contents

Mental Health, Fitness and my relationship to both

The following excerpt is taken from the Coach Seán Weekly Newsletter. Click HERE to subscribe for FREE

Happy Monday!

No, that's not a thing? The first time this year that I have missed sending out this email on a Sunday evening but I wanted to make sure I did this one to the best of my ability and be as thorough as I can on this one. It can be a touchy subject, to say the least.

With it being the start of Mental Health Awareness week, and after Darkness into Light over the weekend, I wanted to spend this email talking about Mental Health, and it's relationship to fitness. Before I get into it, I am no expert on the subject. We all know too many people that have been affected by mental illness. I recognise how serious this issue is and even though I know how fitness can help and how I have seen it help, that does not mean I think it is the only answer by any means. Nor do I believe it is as easy as that. So bear with me as I attempt to tell my story on it. 

I think we have all heard about the studies about exercise helping with depression. Fitness training can help fight the symptoms of depression by stimulating muscle generated mood boosters. And even exercising for one hour a week can prevent depression, according to the University of New South Wales

Fitness can be as much about the state of mind as it is about physical health. We are all affected differently in our motivation to train and how we train as shown in a study published two weeks ago. Whether we hire a Personal Trainer, train in groups, sports, or on our own in the gym, how we stay consistent and pursue our physical health goals all starts with the mind (side note: it's a study that suggests you find your 'why' for training rather than just looking for the latest fad in exercise and diet). 

I could copy and paste studies all day on how exercise should be prescribed before medication for helping with depression and anxiety. Some example is HERE and HERE. However, the issue is a lot more complicated than that. 

Saying you need to exercise to someone who is in such a bad state that they can't get out of bed in the morning is not going to do any good. Someone who is crippled with depression or anxiety is not going to feel better by being dragged out of bed to do some jumping jacks and push-ups. There is no 'why' for them to train.

There are people a lot smarter than me that have a better understanding of what someone is going through and how to help. They may not want to talk or speak out but just being there is important. 

I can't really speak on this. Sure, I'm the Personal Trainer that works out and eats well all the time. How can I relate to that? I have been involved with sports all my life, studied fitness and now train people for a living. I can't relate. 

Except it's not that simple for me.

I played every sport I could when I was young (except hurling, sorry, I still don't get it). But when I finished secondary school, I felt lost with no purpose (and I'm sure I'm far from alone in that). After a year out I found myself studying Fitness Instruction and Personal Training out in Sallynoggin for 3 years. I always had an interest in fitness. But, after team sports had finished, I barely trained. 

Throughout my 3 years, I didn't even have a gym membership. I found gyms intimidating. Believe it or not, I still do - well, a little more infuriating than intimidating these days. I still see that middle ground in the bigger gyms of the guys in the weights area walking around with a sense of entitlement that they're more deserving of specific equipment. They think that they know what they are doing as they grunt and brag that their way is the only way. It can be very off-putting for those starting to train in the gym to come across people like this. Some never go back because of it. Be conscious of both the next time you are in the gym. 

Enough ranting.

I swear this image was filter before I saved it all those years ago

I swear this image was filter before I saved it all those years ago

There's me during my college years. Which one? The guy with the baggy white t-shirt and bottoms (pure coincidence that it looks like I'm highlighted in this picture). Heavy rap influence - yep think of that the next time you hear my tunes in the classes these days! I must have weighed 10 stone, shy as hell. I only trained during college when I had to pass physical exams that were few and far between. Though we taught Aerobics every week, that was really my only form of exercise... man, I hated Aerobics. 

I had no reason to train. I had no 'why'. I wasn't even sure why I was studying fitness and contemplating dropping out many times. But I got through the 3 years and got my diploma before moving on to a leisure centre and my first job. 

That job was soul destroying. For those that don't know, being a fitness instructor in a big gym or leisure centre means you get to do the job you were trained to do 2 hours of the day. The rest was spent cleaning, answering phone calls, cleaning, dealing with clients for beauty salon appointments, some more cleaning, working in a crèche, *ahem*, I mean cleaning and being a receptionist/lifeguard when you are on duty by yourself at 6 am. Those that know me well, know how terrifying that last one is. For those that don't, just know that there's a great reason I won't be doing any triathlons this year. The penny will drop soon...

So after 9 months of that, I was done. I handed in my notice in August of 2010 with no plan. Anything was better than the fitness world.

I applied late in the CAO after most of the offers were accepted already, for the only thing that looked decent - Electronic Engineering in Maynooth. 

I was good with electronics, and I was stubborn enough to stick with honours maths to have the only prerequisite for the course in having an hours degree to get straight in. Yeah, the guy who can't count in your sessions has honours maths on his CV... I think that shows more about how meaningless the leaving cert is in the long run than anything else. 4-year degree and I'm set.

Except I had no idea what I was really in for. Computer coding? Maths with imaginary numbers? Huh?

And that job I walked out of? Turns out being in college is expensive. So after a rough phone call, I was back in the soul-crushing fitness instructor job as well as being a barman at weekends, and going through college. I had that mentality that if I was going to do, I was going to do it all by myself - terrible attitude to have. 

And I sucked at all 3. 

Scrapping my way through college, I found the one place of solace. The gym. That skinny 10 stone kid with the clothes that would fit Shaquille O'Neal finally found his 'why'... and it is the typical early 20s kid in college reason too - girls. If I was 5 minutes late for a class or lab, that was my excuse to hit the college gym instead. It wouldn't just be rude to walk in on a lecture after it started. I also couldn't sit still for 2-3 hours at a time. It's physically impossible.

That summer was spent in the gym I worked in. After work, getting a session in. Mainly weekends when it was quiet. I started to fit into my oversized clothes. 

It really was the beginning of the end for that head of hair…

It really was the beginning of the end for that head of hair…

Ok, I went the other way and bought clothes that were too small for me. And I'm not so sure about the skulls and bones top neither. 

But I finally found my 'why' to train. I looked and felt better (just in time too with that hairline of mine). I gained more confidence. In turn, I felt better about coaching and soon started doing other classes outside of that soul-crushing job in the leisure centre (which lead me to leave it and doing the boot camps I now do every Monday and Wednesday in Castleknock - yep, I squeezed in a cheap plug)

I would be lying if I said that I have always been consistent with my training since my struggles in college. My 'why' has changed over the years to compensate for the lull in working out. Whether due to injury or lack of motivation, I've always felt a lot worse after periods without training and focus. It's been the main reason I've taken part in American Football and ran marathons. There are no tricks to motivation. It all comes down to a strong 'why' to stay consistent. 

My main point in telling my story on this Mental Health Awareness week is that we can get caught up in wanting to help others, posting about talking to others online, when we are sacrificing our own health. A phrase that I have heard sounded ridiculous to me at first but summed up this newsletter is that you have to be selfish to be selfless.

That can sound really awful at first. To be selfish and look after yourself first and foremost. But how can I help others and coach others if I don't look after myself first? And that can be harder than it sounds. It's like when you get that safety talk on planes before take-off to put the mask on yourself before others. Unless you find ways to help yourself and stay on top of your game, you won't be able to help others effectively. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. Find your own time for your own goals. Make time to put yourself first. 

Electronic Engineering didn't work out for me. The long, unsociable hours doing personal training and classes can be tiring, but I wouldn't change it for anything. Fitness, and particularly strength training, has helped me through the years. This is why I am very passionate when it comes to helping others through fitness coaching as I find expressing it though out ways challenging. I wouldn't be doing it as long as I have otherwise.

You obviously have an interest in training and your wellbeing to have signed up for this newsletter and read this far. In a time where we all look for quick fixes, I say focus on the journey and the end product is so much more rewarding. 

For consistency and motivation to your goals, your mental health comes first. And for that, you need to find your own 'why'. Set your own purpose. Whether it's group training, personal training, CrossFit or maybe you have a love for Aerobics and are insulted by myself dissing it earlier in this post (dissing it? - perhaps I should go back to the baggy clothes), what you do for your fitness should suit your personality, help achieve your 'why' and should definitely not be soul-crushing every time you do it! 

Thank you for reading, as always. Apologies for the length but I needed to be thorough as I could so that this was not misinterpreted. Saying you need to be selfish on mental health week can definitely be misinterpreted. 

It's still a Monday for most of you reading. Enough procrastination. Time to start the week STRONG and get that workout in.