Taken from our Lift The Bar Magazine Issue 2 Article by Louise Johnstone

Mental illness; often used alongside the terms crazy, mental and nuts.

We’ve seen the media exposure covering the extreme end of the spectrum of mental illness; we’ve seen the films depicting asylums and psychopaths. Mental health and illness exists on a continuum from mental illness to mental wellbeing. It incorporates not only those suffering from illness but also those who develop a positive mindset.

So, what is mental illness? It is a medical condition that can affect an individual’s thoughts, feelings and/ or actions. It can cause this person suffering and difficulty functioning. There are different types of mental illness including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar, obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is not an exhaustive list.

By 2030, approximately 2 million more adults will suffer from mental health problems than in 2013(1). Mental illness is something that can affect us directly (1 in 4 people will struggle with a mental health condition in their lifetime) or indirectly.

As personal trainers we find ourselves in the privileged position of trust, we have a duty of care to our clients. It is crucial for the health and safety of ourselves and our clients that we establish clear boundaries. With this trust comes a responsibility to put our clients in touch with the best people for their circumstances.


We’ve all been faced with a situation where a client has become over-dependent, they require high levels of emotional support, and they divulge information which leaves you feeling uncomfortable, out of your depth and more like a counsellor.

How do we know when we’ve reached the boundaries of our expertise? Who do we speak to? Who can they speak with?

But first let’s remember that we are experts in exercise prescription, we know physical activity and exercise and how to match the appropriate volume, frequency and type of exercise for our clients and their goals at any given time. Knowing what signs and symptoms to be aware of when you suspect someone may be struggling is important.


A number of signs to be vigilant for include:

withdrawal, decreased/ increased appetite/ sleeping habits, decreased enjoyment in normal activities, thinking or talking about suicide/ harming themselves, the inability to cope with daily activities, marked changes in personality/ behaviour or mood.


Anecdotally and personally, most of us know that physical activity and exercise benefit those with mental health challenges. The research agrees with this sentiment.

Exercise and physical activity including running, cycling, swimming, dancing and resistance exercise have all been shown to reduce depressive and anxiety symptoms (2,3) according to the research. However the NICE guidelines for mild to moderate depression only include recommending group exercise classes three times per week lasting 45 – 60 minutes.

Consider the signs and symptoms of different mental illnesses.

For example when someone is suffering from anxiety, try to minimise the number of factors that are changed at any one time, have a relaxed manner rather than a more animated and motivational demeanour.

In dealing with clients who have suffered from depression, encouraging autonomy is important while not offering too many choices.

Providing opportunities for success on a regular basis are important. These are examples taken from specific people, while they are generic ideas, it is important to learn the needs of your client and their individual preferences in spite of their diagnosis.

As personal trainers and trusted individuals within our client’s lives we have a responsibility to normalise mental illness and wellbeing. To encourage a positive and balanced outlook toward mental and physical health, the interrelatedness, of these often looked separate entities.

Providing a safe environment where your client can be themselves, they are not their illness; they are more than a label. They are a human being, who has potential, who is physically strong, and can demonstrate strength both physically and mentally. You can provide that environment, by being your best, by bringing your ‘A’ game to every session irrespective of their mood, by encouraging a level of trust where they know you can adapt a session at a moment’s notice and they will not be judged for once again not hitting their targets that week.

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