THE BLOG

The Mental Health Diet: Forget Fat Loss, the Best Motivator for Sticking with Exercise is Stress Relief

08/10/2015 10:54 BST | Updated 06/10/2016 10:12 BST

I love exercise. So much so that I quit life as a management consultant and made my own career in fitness. I even married a personal trainer.

But I'm so bored of the 'drop a dress size,' brigade and totally over fitness fads. My own gym membership is hanging by a thread because the brashness of its marketing is completely disconnected to the service I actually receive.

I believe fitness marketing is missing this crucial selling point. What makes me come back to exercise every time I fall off the wagon (due to squeezing too many things into my life) is the simple fact that it makes me feel better. My stressed out self does not want shouty marketing telling me to lose my mummy tummy. I love my tummy. It has grown and housed my two beautiful children.

When stress starts to have a physical impact on my health and my life, the thing that turns it around, is exercise. When the spots, IBS symptoms, restless sleep, picked fingers and frequent illness kick in, it's not medicine I need or a gluten free detox, it's a regular fitness pickup.

And it's not just a feeling. Scientists have discovered that heart rate variability (HRV) is an excellent tool for measuring early signs of stress, something the latest personal fitness trackers can monitor. Gentle exercise like yoga or walking has been shown to regulate HRV.

Five years ago my husband and I were teaching the occasional freelance class for gyms, he as a group cycle instructor, me as a Pilates and group fitness instructor. We saw members come, exercise and leave. Stressed. I even wrote an article for The Guardian about the fact that the members I saw in class were so stressed about getting there, getting their spot, getting out on time, getting into the shower, getting changed and getting back to work that they were really missing the point. This was a time out opportunity missed.

We felt that within the gym model, there was very little time for education and with drop in classes there was little opportunity for progression. We wanted people to get great results from their fitness and to get the bug. And we hoped people would understand and begin to feel for themselves how exercise does not always have to be about optimised programmes and shouty fat loss marketing. It just makes you feel better.

Three years ago we set up Fit School in the heart of Epping Forest. Today, our little tribe of members is thriving. And what is it that keeps our members exercising, even when they fall off the wagon? They feel better. Exercise is a way to manage stress.

Only this morning, on the school run, one of my Pilates participants stopped me to say how much she's missed the class (she's been off due to PTA meetings and family illness). "I need my mental exercise," she said. "When I'm in Pilates I'm just exercising. It's the one time in the week I'm not thinking about anything else."

A fantastic by-product of all this activity and improved nutrition of course, is that generally they love the way they look from regular exercise too.

Exercise is not just the reserve of the fit, the buff or the girls who made the school sports teams. And you absolutely don't have to keep fat loss at the forefront of your exercise programme. There's so much more to it than that. Community. Conversation. Relaxation. Fun and of course less stress.