Training With ... Mental Illness

Exercise is an important part of managing mental illness, but you can have too much of a good thing.
Ashleigh Flanagan
December 11, 2021

Your response to training differs based on many factors, including your; age, gender, heritage, health, medical conditions, nutrition, recovery, training history, training expectations, socioeconomic status/determinants of health, stressors etc. In fact, how you respond to training will vary from session to session. The more your training is tailored to meet your needs and supports your goals, the more you will get out of it.  

This series, Training with ‘…’, discusses considerations and general strategies for modifying training in situations where doing things differently will allow you to get more out of your training. 

The first blog looked at training when sick, specifically when you shouldn’t and how to modify training when you do. Read the blog here

Blog two explored how best to approach training when living with a Chronic Health Condition (CHC). Read the blog here.

The last blog considered pain; when to expect it when training, when training helps to manage pain, and when to seek professional guidance. Read the blog here.


Training With ‘...’ Mental Illness

Mental illness is incredibly common. Approximately 1 in 5 Australians 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year, and almost half will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Check the reference here.

Like other Chronic Health Conditions (CHC), mental illnesses have multiple causative and aggravating factors; genetic, traumatic, cognitive, psychosocial, environmental, and lifestyle, making them complex to manage and challenging to live with. Regular exercise is essential for the general health and wellbeing of everyone and can help manage symptoms of mental illness. Those with mental illness who train 30–60 minutes three to five times per week report significant improvements in their symptom management. Team sports, aerobic activities and weights are most beneficial, but training of any kind, even activities not traditionally thought of as exercise, are helpful. Read more about the study here

In general, it’s appropriate to consider training with mental illness as you would other CHC;

-Adopt an intuitive approach to your training. Be proactive, yet flexible. Consider:

  1. Schedule slide- Move training around in your day / week / month to train when you are at your peak.
  2. Modification- Adjust the loading of your training depending on your symptoms. 
  3. Substitute- Replace one training activity for another that better suits your symptoms.
  4. Support- If you don’t train, consider finding another way to support your health and wellbeing, such as meditation, massage or connecting with others.

-Get advice from your specialists and the professionals involved in your management. They can give you informed, individualised recommendations and help you monitor the impact of your training.

-Work with a coach or trainer that listens and helps you modify your training based on how you feel. 

-Talk with others that have similar concerns to you. While your team’s specific advice and your personal experiences are the most important, you may obtain helpful insights and inspiration from others in similar situations.

-Include the role of exercise in your action plan for managing your illness. Consider what symptoms indicate that modifying, substituting or supporting your training is better than avoiding or pushing through.

To learn more about training with CHC, check out the article here

To Train or Not to Train

While exercise is vital for those with mental illness, how a person responds to training will be individual and variable. It’s important to recognise that exercise will never cure mental illness, and no one develops mental illness because they don’t exercise. In fact, exercising for more than 23 hours a month or over 90 mins at a time has been shown to result in worse mental health for those with mental illness compared to not exercising at all. Read more about this study here.

While these specific cut-offs may not be individually relevant, overtraining can be problematic for those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or those with eating disorders, and can become an unhelpful coping strategy for anyone with mental illness.  Compulsive training can be used to avoid dealing with psychosocial and emotional issues. Individuals miss the opportunity to practice more balanced and productive coping strategies and may not seek external support promptly. Unfortunately, individuals can receive positive feedback for their training and physical accomplishments, and those around them may not recognise their training as problematic and potentially unhealthy.  

You should seek professional support if:

-You are using exercise as a way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions.

-Exercise is the only way you feel you can manage your mood. 

-The amount you exercise impacts your health or disrupts your work, relationships or social life.

-You exercise to punish yourself.

-You feel anxious, guilty or worried about missing or cutting short a workout. 

-You feel that your training is never good enough.

-You feel you cannot stop training for a short period, such as for a holiday or when you are sick. 

- You experience persistent fear, anxiety, or stress regarding negative body changes if you can’t exercise.


If you recognise these signs in others, it’s crucial to have a direct conversation with them about your concerns and encourage them to engage with professional supports and/ or seek support yourself to facilitate this conversation.


Next, in this series of training with ‘...’, we will consider training with a baby on-board.


Helpful Resources

Beyond Blue Support Service - Support. Advice. Action

Information and referral to relevant services for depression and anxiety-related matters.

Phone: 1300 22 46 36


Black Dog Institute

The Black Dog Institute is a world leader in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.


Butterfly Foundation

Butterfly provides support for Australians who suffer from eating disorders and negative body image issues and their carers. 

Phone: 1800 33 4673



Headspace is the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. We help young people who are going through a tough time.


Kids Help Line

Confidential and anonymous, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25. 

Phone: 1800 55 18 00



24 hour telephone counselling service. 

Phone: 13 11 14 or Text: 0477 13 11 14 6pm - midnight AEST


Mensline Australia

A dedicated service for men with relationship and family concerns. 

Phone: 1300 78 99 78



National sexual assault, domestic family violence counselling services 24-hour online support for workers and professionals.

Phone: 1800 737 732


Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling

Free and confidential counselling and support services for Australian veterans and their families. 

Phone: 1800 011 046



QLife provides Australia-wide anonymous, LGBTI peer support and referral for people wanting to talk about a range of issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships. 

Phone: 1800 184 527


Relationships Australia

Relationships Australia is a leading provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities. 

Phone: 1300 364 277

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