Going To The Gym | Mental Health


The Guilt Trip

There’s many who report feeling guilty for not exercising, but in today’s increasingly health-conscious society, what about those of us who want to go but feel selfish or guilty for doing so?…

There has been an explosion recently in the literature within mental health, showing increasing recognition of exercise not only as a means of physical and mental well being, but also as an effective treatment for mental disorders, comparable, and in some cases more effective than traditional treatments. In fact, the effects of exercise on depression are reported as being previously underestimated, with the author of a recent meta-analysis concluding “Previous meta-analyses may have underestimated the benefits of exercise due to publication bias. Our data strongly support the claim that exercise is an evidence-based treatment for depression.”

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Can Exercise Help?

Exercise has been found to be linked to improvements for a range of psychological and psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, Schizophrenia, First episode psychosis, with even a single bout of exercise having positive effects on anxiety.

Yet despite this, regular or aspiring gym-goers often report a sense of guilt for prioritising exercise, as if to do so is considered vain or selfish, and that their time would be better spent elsewhere such as household jobs or “real” work. Additionally, recent media coverage of newly ascribed conditions such as Orthorexia and Bigorexia have highlighted public awareness regarding the extreme manifestation of “clean living” and pursuing the body beautiful, where it can have extremely life-damaging effects.

So, what’s the solution?

It might be an old adage, but the key to this really is all about balance. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; ACT), a third generation or “new wave” form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can assist with this as it encapsulates how this might be achieved in relation to fitness, eating, or indeed any other behavioural decisions.

Whilst ACT is an evidence-based treatment for mental health conditions, it can also be an incredibly effective way of helping any individual live life more healthily and helpfully. Rather than sticking rigidly to rules, such as “I must train every day” or “I can only go to the gym when I’ve prioritised looking after everyone else’s needs”, ACT aims to develop psychological flexibility in enabling people to live better.


Whilst it’s fine to have goals (such as a set number of gym visits to aim for each week), ACT encourages individuals to “hold goals lightly”, and to use them when they are workable (where they offer more than they cost on that occasion) and to lay them down when not.

With psychological flexibility as the guide for behaviour, decisions are made in line with values (the kind of person you want to be, and who and what matters to you) and workability, and not led by internal experience (thoughts, emotions and sensations). This way, unhelpful thoughts such as “I can’t be bothered” or “It’s indulgent if I go” are evaluated in terms of their usefulness and the outcome of following them in terms of life direction, as opposed to whether they are true or false. Additionally, uncomfortable feelings (such as tiredness and low mood) also don’t get to dictate action. This frees the individual up to make decisions that offer a more balanced, fulfilling and healthy life.


By training in psychological skills such as mindfulness (defusion and acceptance) and making behavioural decisions and taking actions that are contextually effective, the individual can learn to manoeuvre through the tricky minefield of life in a way that takes them towards who and what matters, even where doing so involves experiencing difficult or unwanted internal experience (thoughts and feelings) that would normally pose barriers to meaningful action.

So, how might life be different if you were able to exercise in a way that met the needs of your health and personal goals, whilst also engaging fully with the other domains of life that matter to you? If you were able to make a daily decision and act flexibly based on work-ability and values, rather than draining demands set by your mind or fuelled by a perpetual sense of guilt or duty?… Might life feel freer and exercise be a life enhancement rather than an indulgence or obligation?


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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye has a MSc in Sport Physiology and Nutrition, and puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding. She enjoys a pun, and in her spare time loves dog walking and eating out.

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