Mental Health & Fitness : A perspective

It is a long-accepted paradigm that exercise not only results in better physical health but also positively impacts our mental health. Regular physical exercise has been known to be almost therapeutic and has been linked to help with psychological disorders like depression & anxiety and certain psychiatric illnesses as well. Physical exercise stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Endorphins are also released during exercise that helps regulate your mood and keep stress at bay. Simplistically speaking, these are all hormones that are responsible for your happiness.

Thus, the effect of fitness on your mental health is well established. However, there is not
enough dialogue around the other end of the spectrum. Turning the lens in the opposite
direction, we will now try to examine how our mental health, psychological state to be specific, can affect our fitness journey without us even being aware of it.


It is safe to say that for anyone in the pursuit of a fit lifestyle, motivation is indispensable. While we use the term very loosely in our daily lives, from the psychological standpoint, motivation has a deeper meaning.

Motivation is an internal process. Whether we define it as a drive or a need, motivation is a
condition inside us that desires a change, either in the self or the environment. When we tap
into this well of energy, motivation endows the person with the drive and direction needed to
engage with the environment in an adaptive, open-ended and problem-solving sort of way.

Thus, starting and more importantly, maintaining fitness is all about having the motivation to do so. The Humanist Psychologist Abraham Maslow provided a model for understanding
motivation called the Hierarchy of Needs. According to this model, we have six basic needs that we are motivated to fulfill in a hierarchy. These are physiological, safety, love & belonging, esteem and self-actualization. We follow a fitness regime for many of these needs.

Let’s take a simple example. A is someone who loves to socialize and meet new people. He
may want to join the gym to get fit and also would like to meet new people over there. The
friendships that foster there keep him on track since he goes back every day to not only
exercise but also maintain his social relations. With a sense of belongingness, he begins to fulfill his need of self-esteem and trains really hard to acquire respect for himself and among his friends.

B, on the other hand, suffers from Social- Anxiety Disorder. He wants to be fit but the thought of meeting people and having conversations with them makes him intensely nervous and anxious. He fears the crowd and feels like other people over there may make fun of him. He doesn’t join the gym and doesn’t get as fit as he wants to be. This leads to low-self esteem and there is no motivation for him to make any change.

A and B both desire to be fit, but B lacks motivation because of his psychological state. B needs to address this.


Psychologically speaking, Body Image is one’s own perception of their physical appearance.
This is self created and may or may not bear any relation to how one actually appears. It is
affected by our early experiences of childhood, social and cultural experiences, media etc. One may be satisfied or dissatisfied with it. If one is dissatisfied with their body image, they have what is called a ‘negative body image’.

In its severest form, it may manifest into a body dysmorphic disorder. Those suffering from this disorder are always pre-occupied with their perceived defects or flaws, to the extent that they may even cause harm to their own selves. This may present itself in many ways in our fitness journey. With such a negative body image, one may feel unworthy and will also be afraid of other’s judgement of them. This will hamper them from making a change and be a hurdle in their fitness goals. Alternatively, it may lead to extreme weight control behaviour such as eating disorders, excessive cardio for weight loss, eating too little. Even though this may lead to weight loss, most likely, their body image will still remain negative and they will inherently ‘feel fat’ even though they may be at an healthy weight. They are also at danger of physical harm.


We have tried to touch upon certain aspects of our psychological well being that impact our
journey of fitness. These are not always explicit and may affect someone in very subtle ways.
Mental Health issues must be discussed. Tapping in to such issues at the right time is critical.
Every time someone starts their fitness journey, their physical history is always taken in to
consideration. It is about time we start factoring in their mental health, just like we do with
physical ailments. Otherwise, we may be doing everything right as fitness professionals, but the goal will still remain a distant dream.

About the Author : A psychologist by education and a fitness enthusiast by choice, Saakshi dreams to combine these worlds. Content writing and social media management is a passion that keeps her in the constant learner mode.


  1. Meeusen R. Exercise and the brain: Insight in new therapeutic modalities. Ann.Transplant. 2005;10:49–51. [ PubMed ] [Google Scholar]
  1. Knochel C., Oertel-Knochel V., O’Dwyer L., Prvulovic D., Alves G., Kollmann B.,
    Hampel H. Cognitive and behavioural effects of physical exercise in psychiatric patients. Prog. Neurobiol. 2012;96:46–68. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2011.11.007. [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [Google Scholar]
  1. Tordeurs D., Janne P., Appart A., Zdanowicz N., Reynaert C. Effectiveness of physical exercise in psychiatry: A therapeutic approach? Encephale. 2011;37:345–352. doi: 10.1016/j.encep.2011.02.003. [ PubMed ] [ CrossRef ] [Google Scholar]
  1. Wolff E., Gaudlitz K., von Lindenberger B.L., Plag J., Heinz A., Strohle A. Exercise
    and physical activity in mental disorders. Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin.
    Neurosci. 2011;261:S186–S191. doi: 10.1007/s00406-011-0254-y. [ PubMed ]
    [ CrossRef ] [Google Scholar]
  2.  Carek P.J., Laibstain S.E., Carek S.M. Exercise for the treatment of depression and
    anxiety. Int. J. Psychiatry Med. 2011;41:15–28. doi: 10.2190/PM.41.1.c. [ PubMed ]
    [ CrossRef ] [Google Scholar]
  3. TY – JOUR, Tiwari, Gyanesh, AU – Kumar, Sanjay, PY – 2015/01/01, T1 – Psychology and Body Image : A Review, JO – SHODH PRERAK

Leave a Reply