Lots of people will be celebrating as gyms reopen on Saturday after months of lockdown closures. But for some, it’s about more than just exercise.
Three young weightlifters spoke to Radio 1 Newsbeat about how weights have improved their mental health.
“I’ve always been a gym person, but it’s different now,” Jake Smith says. He has been treated in hospital for clinical depression and told us he tried to take his own life in January “after a series of knocks”.
Part of his treatment involved exercise. “I use it as a coping mechanism and somewhere I can go to feel safe,” the 24-year-old says. “Going to the gym and reaching the goals I’ve set really benefits me, probably more than the average person,” he says.
Jake can now squat 200kg – much more than when he started.
It’s that progress which Jake says feels like a win. “Any type of achievement feels good.”
He describes the gym as a form of therapy because it’s “a place I can be myself”.
Though he’s started running in lockdown, being without a gym for four months has been a struggle. “Because of the routine, going from four or five times a week to nothing has been challenging.”
“I can’t wait to be back on the squat rack.”
Jake adds: “Going to the gym isn’t only about lifting or exercising. It’s almost a social place with nobody judging you. And I enjoy being around people when they work out, the sound of weights hitting and people achieving things.”
‘Lifting weights has made me eat regularly’
Weight training in the gym was a “turning point” for Hannah Hope.
The 24-year-old had anxiety at the age of 17, later living with depression and anorexia. She was “scared to leave the house and go anywhere that was crowded”, leading to her becoming very isolated.
After treatment, she said working on her physical fitness was the first time she “felt free from everything”. “I learned to lift weights. The only thing I could focus on at that moment in time was lifting. I think, ‘oh, my body can do this’.”
That realisation made Hannah understand the importance of eating properly to be healthy and strong.
“Lifting weights in the gym has made sure that I’m now eating regularly and eating well. And I’ve realised it’s way more important what my body can do rather than how it looks.”
Hannah says going to the gym helps to lift negative thoughts: “The problems may not have gone, but it makes me feel like I’m more in control.”
And she he has missed it during lockdown. “Not being able to walk into a gym, see those faces and train has been difficult. I’ve had days where I’ve just stayed in bed and not had the motivation to get up.”
The science behind exercise and mental health
According to Dr Amit Mistry, there’s strong evidence about the benefits of exercise to our mental health.
“When we engage in moderate levels of exercise, we know we can boost endorphin levels,” says Dr Mistry, who is the chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists for Sport and Exercise interests group.
Endorphins are a feel-good chemical in our brains – linked to our mood – which we release when exercising.
But he adds that too much exercise can have “a detrimental effect”, so it’s important to set realistic goals and not “obsess too much about numbers”.
‘The fitter I get, the mentally stronger I am’
For Courtney Davies, training at the gym helps her “when the bad days hit”.
The 23-year-old tells Newsbeat a sexual assault left her with post-traumatic stress disorder: “It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never experienced it. You basically lose yourself – I’m not the same person I was.
“I was grieving for the person I was before. But you have to try and discover yourself.”
And that’s how the gym plays a massive role for Courtney. Like with Jake, having goals helped Courtney.
“I needed a focus and the training side of things gets me where I need to be mentally and physically.”
It’s cardio and “mainly weights” which let Courtney focus on “the here and now”.
She says that along with physical help, the trainers at her gym help her mindset. “They give support and advice which you can use when bad days come. So I know then the best thing for me is to get up and train.”
“I feel like the fitter I get, the mentally stronger and happier I am.”
Courtney says the slow return to fitness normality will help her mental health.
“You can’t get the same heavy equipment as the gym. I can’t wait to go back and have that transition where you can go to the gym, workout and come home, rather than being in the living room or kitchen.”