Exercise And Mental Health, Part 2 - Self-esteem

Interesting free to use photo - what sport/game is this? I have literally no idea...

Interesting free to use photo - what sport/game is this? I have literally no idea...

This series was going to be three parts...but now it's going to be five. There's too much to condense into three parts when it comes to mental health and exercise. If I had crammed it into three parts I wouldn't blame you for falling asleep or getting bored and looking at pictures of cats instead.

Anyway, on with the show...

This blog post took a lot of reading. I had about 20 tabs open with various studies and articles at one point during planning it and coming to any meaningful conclusions that would be useful to you, dear reader, taxed the few brain cells I have left after a few beers over the weekend.

The previous post took on the weighty subject of exercise and depression. This one will cover another area of mental health: self-esteem. Reading up on this subject was slightly less heavy going than for the previous post!

I am pleased to report that thanks to writing this I have learned loads, and can relay some great news to you in this post.

Self-esteem - exercise can influence it from a young age

A quick Google search for the definition of self-esteem tells us it is: "confidence in one's own worth or abilities; self-respect." All great things we'd all like to have in spades, but not to the degree where cockiness creeps in. 

The photo at the top of this post is relevant to this section. When I was looking for information on physical activity/exercise and self-esteem, a lot of the research focuses on its effects on children and adolescents. There is also some information on how it can help adults, but I couldn't get access to a huge meta-analysis on the subject, which meant that I had to rely on a second hand reference which we'll look at later.

I came across this paper (Bailey et al.) that draws upon hundreds of references and summarises everything very nicely. It seems that exercise, particularly sports or structured activities deliver much more than increased fitness and better movement for youngsters. It helps social skills, increases confidence amongst peers, helps reduce depression and anxiety (such a sad thought that some kids suffer from those conditions), and the global effects of being physically active might also help academic performance. 

The paper was funded by sports goods giant Nike. This did make me raise an eyebrow, because obviously good news on exercise and mental health could be a potential marketing angle. However, the conclusions the authors come to seem to be in line with everything else I've read and I don't think there's some big conspiracy going on 😅 If anything, this was up there with the best information I found on this subject! 

The authors also stress that having a positive experience is key to ensuring that physical activity remains an important part of a child's life as they age. And, after all, why would anyone want to repeat some sort of exercise or sport that they hate? This is something I think a lot of adults get wrong when they go to the gym - they never actually enjoy it. If they don't enjoy it, falling off the bandwagon is surely a bit more likely. Once they're off that bandwagon, they can't get the self-esteem boosting effects exercise can deliver. Sticking at it is crucial.

The below graphic is pulled from the paper discussed above and I think is a great way of visualising how the good effects of exercise, specifically sports, can really snowball.

An interesting illustration of what's going on with exercise (in this case, sports) and self-esteem

An interesting illustration of what's going on with exercise (in this case, sports) and self-esteem

I wonder how much having a bad experience with sports as a kid can affect someone as an adult. I was always relatively sporty at school and apart from a couple of years of nothing but boozing (gap year and first year at university) and not exercising, I've been pretty active since, doing lots of gym work and running, cycling, football and walking. Some peers at school who were not as athletic remain that way as adults. I clearly got lucky as I enjoyed the things we did at school, that's not the case for everyone.

Self-esteem and exercise in adults

I wanted to get access to this study but I couldn't. Luckily, I found something that was written in plain and not overly scientific English that proved very insightful. This review paper by Dr Sarah Edmunds was fascinating and helped me form some useful conclusions on this huge subject. It also briefly covers the conclusions of the authors of the study I couldn't get access to (and likely would have struggled to understand all the statistics on anyway!!). Although this paper isn't in a peer-reviewed journal and is written for a company with health and fitness products on its resume, it cites lots of up to date research and is in line with everything else I've read.

The most important thing to take away from this is very much in line with one of the things I mentioned in the previous post: it really doesn't matter what type of exercise you do. Also, with regards to self-esteem, it also doesn't seem to matter what kind of intensity you exercise at. This gives you many options. Any type of sport or just anything that gets you active and your heart pumping is going to be very valuable. 

Exercising in groups or with friends is also recommended. It can be hugely useful not only because social interaction can be great for self-esteem, but also thanks to the fact that there are more people holding each other accountable in a group. This will potentially help some people hit goals they might have, and it's important to know that a good personal trainer can really help with goal setting and helping reach those goals.

But, again, as I mentioned in the last post, keeping the barriers to entry low might be a good strategy for some. You don't necessarily need a personal trainer to get in good shape - running, cycling, walking, swimming, sports and water-sports are all great options. I always encourage clients to seek out activities they really enjoy and it's always great to hear when a client gets back into a sport they love or takes up something new.

Any coaching or training should be conducted in a positive manner by a professional coach. I never liked the stereotype of the personal trainer that shouted and screamed at clients. I've never understood how that can be good for a client in the long term. Positive reinforcement is how I roll, and I'm glad to know that the evidence backs this up as being the best way to deliver fitness coaching.

The broader topic of self-esteem

This isn't something I'm really qualified to go into detail in; I'm not a psychologist and I fear that if I tried to summarise self-esteem it would come across as pseudo-psychological babble. However, it's important to note that exercise is only one of many things that can help self-esteem, and that self-esteem has many different pillars. 

The below chart pulled from the paper by Dr Sarah Edmunds, which she in turn pulled and adapted from some other clever people, is all the summary I think is necessary on this topic - exercise increases all aspects of physical self-worth, which feeds into overall self-esteem levels.

Exercise is one part of many!

Exercise is one part of many!

There really is nothing to lose if you decide to start exercising. It is a key part of a healthy mind and body, and there are so many options open to you, from gyms to walks around the gorgeous Irish countryside. Exercise is a powerful tool that helps people build self-esteem, confidence and it's something I see in clients every day, which is why I love what I do.

It's always amazing to hear how the things I do with clients has knock on effects, and I notice that after 2-3 months working with someone their ability to learn new techniques in the gym skyrockets - this is often when I will see them really start to physically change and their mindset shift. It's why I got into this career, I love seeing people get strong and happy.

So, in summary:

  • find a form of exercise you love and get cracking
  • coaching can be helpful if the coach is good; goal-setting and positive reinforcement are key
  • always making progress in various forms of exercise will create a vicious circle - exercise leads to higher self-esteem and higher self-esteem will make you want to exercise more
  • do something frequently, ideally at least 3 exercise sessions per week of some sort but don't forget that recovery and relaxation are important

If you have any questions, comments, feedback or just want to say hello, please do so in the comments below.

Thanks for reading, the next part in the series is in progress so please check back soon 💪