Exercise isn't a cure-all for mental health problems. For me, it quickly led to self-destruction

On the one hand I exercise to help myself, to boost my serotonin and give myself a temporary feeling of value and capability. But on the other hand it’s become a benefactor to my eating disorder, another instrument for the illness to destroy me

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The Independent Online

Chronic depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bulimia and anorexia binge/purge subtype have plagued me for ten years now - and exercise as therapy has proved a double-edged swords that creates as many problems as it takes away.

That’s what I want to talk about here. After recently reading an opinion piece extolling the virtues of exercise and its superiority to drugs and therapies in curing depression, I began analysing my own relationship to exercise – and knew I had to say something.

At a recent appointment, my specialist dietician was concerned to hear I’d increased my daily running mileage twofold, despite my calorie intake remaining the same (pretty low). Armed with this information she imposed a cap: I’m now to run no more than 8km per day unless I start eating more, which right now I don’t have the willpower to.

Most of the time I follow her guidance but there are days when my natural tendency to self-destruct takes control, and when self-destruction has running in its arsenal, it makes for a pretty dangerous outcome.

For me, running has become more than a cure, it’s become a compulsive behaviour, a way to counteract the guilt ridden binges and transform the image I see in the mirror. My relationship to running has become a huge paradox; on the one hand I do it to help myself, to boost my serotonin (concurrent to medication) and give myself a temporary feeling of value and capability. But on the other hand it’s become a benefactor to my eating disorder, another instrument for the illness to destroy me.

That exercise does wonders for your mental health is now an irrefutable fact with experts and headlines alike claiming it a miracle panacea for maladies of the mind. I don’t doubt its efficacy in alleviating stress and anxiety, but as the NHS website states, exercise is “especially useful for people with mild to moderate depression”. Although exercise can be beneficial for some people, in some instances it can lead to a further downward spiral.

While it’s fantastic that more and more people are finding that exercise helps with their illness and relieves symptoms, for many this unfortunately isn’t the case. In accordance with the vast number of ways your physical self can fail you, mental disorders too come in myriad shapes and forms. Just as you wouldn’t recommend surgery for a chest infection or antihistamines for a broken bone, one remedy can’t be expected to cure all psychological discrepancies (something the NHS is slowly coming to terms with). 

For some the simple act of throwing on a pair of trainers and bouncing out the door isn’t an option; social phobias impede the possibility of outside activities, while I’ve experienced many days where just turning my body to look at the clock is more than I can manage, let alone showering. At this point exercise is not an option.

Conversely, there are days when I wake up in limbo, unsure which way my mind will swing. To instantly don my running gear and get out the door ensures the cloud of misery and anger is kept at bay, for an afternoon at least.

Exercise can be another device for self-destruction, and an extremely effective one at that. When I took up exercise I knew that in spite of all the good it might do, there’s a fine line between normal exercise behaviour and eating disorder behaviour.

And this is what worries me most when well meaning healthcare professional and journalists prescribe exercise for mental health problems; a high proportion of people with depression and anxiety suffer co-morbidly with eating disorders. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that for someone with a disordered and compulsive way of thinking about weight, exercise can quite quickly become a problem.

While I unfortunately can’t offer any solutions – it’s not quite that simple - I think it’s important to remember that a large proportion of mental health patients have disordered relationships with food.

So while exercise might seem like the ideal solution to offer, for some it can become another means of self-annihilation.