Exercise Psychology

This article by psychologist James Kneller is about “Exercise Psychology”. This topic is related to both the mental health benefits of human movement but also the psychology of getting started.

Exercise psychology is related to the mental health gains of physical activity

Before I began working with Condor Performance in 2019 as a performance psychologist (and soon to earn the title of sport psychologist) I was working with a mixture of athletes and the general public. This work leant towards traditional mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and life stressors. In a traditional psychology setting, I am often asked what the best thing to do is to help with these sorts of issues. My answer, after the colloquial “laughter is the best medicine”, is always exercise. 

I take clients through what I call the basic five things to be taking control of to give them the best opportunity for optimal mental health.

These five areas are: 

  • Diet – an appropriate and relatively healthy diet provides the nutrients and energy to deal with daily requirements 
  • Water – adequate hydration of our bodies is vital for both physical and mental health. As I tell my clients our brains transmit their signals through electrical currents, these move more effectively through water than air
  • Appropriate use of drugs – this means taking any medications or supplements required in the way that they were designed and instructed to do along with limiting or avoiding potentially harmful substances such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal substances
  • Sleep – good sleep is a very close 2nd to my top answer of exercise. In sleep, the body, and particularly the brain is restored, cleaned, and reset to face the next day
  • Exercise – our bodies are designed to move and when we deny them this, they tend to crumble a little including our brains. Modern-day exercise psychology is all about not letting this happen.

Exercise Psychology Basics

It is well known that exercise has numerous physical benefits. For example, physical activity is known to reduce the risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. It has also been shown to reduce the likelihood or onset of neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have had a stroke recover faster. It also improves or maintains muscle mass and bone strength. Exercise is a key component in maintaining or losing weight which leads to a longer life expectancy and likely higher quality of that longer life. 

What is sometimes overlooked is the value of exercise to the brain directly, and to mood and wellbeing associated with this. Studies of the impact of exercise on the brain have found that it improves blood circulation in the brain which helps clarity of thought. It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily responsible for memory. It also improves the connections within nerve cells in the brain improving function and protecting against disease. 

When we exercise the brain releases feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. Many of us have heard of “runners’ high” which is this process, but the benefits are not only felt by those who run great distances. Just getting a sweat up will help the brain produce and release more of these chemicals.

The Right Amount of Exercise

When recommendations are made for how much exercise we should be getting it is just 30 minutes per day for five days a week. This does not need to be gut-busting. It does not have to come in one block of 30 minutes and can be broken down into two or three sessions of 10-15 minutes each. 

I mentioned earlier that enough good quality sleep is my 2nd best action for better mental health, and another benefit of exercise is the strong link between increased exercise and improved quality of sleep. The actions of getting a sweat up through the day help the body feel tired and allow it to more effectively regulate itself to have a sleep period and an active period through the day rather than being confused over which is supposed to be the active one. 

One of the most frustrating things that often happens when clients struggle with depression (for example) is that it can rob them of motivation and our belief that they can achieve anything in life. Regular exercise decreases stress hormones which has a beneficial impact on dealing with life stressors and anxiety. When they begin doing some exercise, even one session a week, they begin to develop a sense of achievement and they begin to break the inertia hold of being sedentary. 

I hear clients say they are waiting for some motivation to hit them, but motivation needs to be created it does not just arrive. But like a snowball, once they take one step and do one session it makes the next easier to achieve and so on. As they continue, they can see the benefits for themselves. They might start receiving comments from friends or family on their progress and their self-esteem rises. For some it is the thrill of looser clothing or making it all the way around the block without stopping. The goals do not need to be massive, and neither do the results. The sense of empowerment for a client to see that they can take some charge over their life can be truly life-changing. 

A Pathway To Social Connections

Exercise can be done in isolation, and with the world currently dealing with pandemics and lockdowns this is both relevant and necessary, but it can also provide a pathway to social connections. This is another important component of strong mental health. Whether walking at the local park and simply seeing others doing the same, or joining a community such as weekly park runs, or getting involved with a team sport. When we exercise with others we can get, and provide, motivation and encouragement from them to simply show up when we are not feeling like it. Teams allow us to work on social skills and leadership skills that are transferable to all aspects of life. 

While exercise psychology is not a focus of Condor Performance, and we would expect our clients are already doing much more than the minimum recommendations each week, many of the skills we work on with clients are transferrable. Planning and setting appropriate structured and incremental goals with clients gives the greatest chance of achieving an end goal or dream. Assisting them to find their motivation and focus assists them to break the inertia of stillness. The accountability of someone who is checking in with them regularly and the support through setbacks allows them to know they are not alone. 

In writing this we would hope that even if it does not apply to you, it is something that you might be able to use to start a discussion with family or friends that you have seen struggling with their mental health and point them in the direction of a local psychologist to assist with getting them back in better mental, and physical, shape. 

Sport Psychology Myths

Some of the most common myths about sport psychology and mental toughness are debunked by leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Sport Psychology Myths potentially outnumber the facts due in part to a lack of consensus and unity from the custodians of the profession until this point.

Sport Psychology Myths – Where To Start?

I am sure all professionals feel like this to some degree. That their working world is full of myths and half-truths. But due to the nature of the work we do and how relatively new our profession is I believe sport psychology is surely up there when it comes to a number of misconceptions. Below are some of our favourites – in no particular order. I use the word favourite due to both a combination of how often we come across them and the potential benefits of debunking them.

Myth 1: Sport Psychology Is Like Counselling, Therapy

This is a classic half-truth in that it is literally half correct. Some elements of the work we do have similarities to the work of counsellors, therapists or clinical psychologists. For example, the confidential nature of the relationship and we can help with mental health issues. But the other half of the process is much more likely to resemble a coach. For this part of the process, we’re more likely to be talking about goals and how to achieve them.

Obviously, some performance psychologists will tend to be more like a therapist whilst others will lean more towards the coaching approach. This is one of the biggest advantages enjoyed by our clients. With such a strong and varied team of psychologists, we can literally allow our clients to tell us what they’re looking for. And with very few exceptions, we can ensure their psychologists has these preferences. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 2: The ‘Natural Talent’ Myth

This is a humdinger of a myth. The notion that we are born to be potentially excellent at something regardless of the amount of effort we put in. In my view, people confuse what they regard as “natural talent” for biological and genetic variation.

The classic example is when young athletes hit puberty and some of them suddenly become taller and heavier than their peers. Although there is no doubt these growth spurts play a role in influencing the outcomes of sporting contests, they should not (yet often are) be regarded as natural talent as there is nothing talented about your genetic makeup.

In fact, I try to get my sporting clients to stop using the word “talent” altogether. Quite simply there are performance variables that are either controllable, influenceable or uninfluenceable. What you inherited from your parents falls into the last of these three categories. Simply put you cannot influence your genetics, and therefore they should occupy as little of your attention as possible. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 3: The ‘Best Time to Start is’ Myth

Mondays, or the 1st of the month or the old favourite January! Don’t get me wrong, in much of the work we do we use time as reminders. For example, using Sunday night as a cue to plan the next seven day. However, these time point myths are often used as an excuse to delay effort.

We know this first hand by the number of enquiries we get for our Sport Psychology services based on the time of year. We still get about the same number of enquiries in December compared with any other month. However, unlike other months most people who decide to start working with one of our sport and performance psychologists delay it until January.

This is despite the fact that we continue to be available to our current and future clients right through the Christmas and New Year period. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

The best time to do/start something that is going to benefit you is now, today – no exceptions.

Myth 4: The ‘Thoughts Can Be Controlled’ Myth

As current and past Condor Performance clients will know we’re often encouraging our clients to consider the amount of control or influence they have on different aspects of their performance. Just over 10 years ago, when clients of ours added ‘thoughts’ to the controllable column we didn’t challenge it. But recent research suggests that although we can influence our thoughts we can never control (guarantee) them. This is not to suggest that traditional thought improvement strategies (such as reframing) are a waste of time. It suggests that thoughts (as opposed to actions) should not be relied on as an essential ingredient of your performance plans.

A classic example of this is the work we do around Pre Performance Routines in start-stop sports. In the old days, we constructed short routines with both actions (put on my glove) with thoughts (“focus on just this shot”). But in recent times we have removed the thought component so our clients’ routines are now all actions based. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 5: The ‘You Have To Feel A Certain Way To Perform Well’ Myth

Same as the above basically. In fact, as humans, we have even less influence over our emotions than our thoughts. Consider extreme emotions like grief. Sure, there are a number of things that you might be able to do to lessen experiences of grief if you lost a loved one. But these kinds of interventions are only going to make a small difference. Those that imply you can control your emotions (an unfortunate number) or suggesting that you can actually make the grief go away entirely through your own volition. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 6: That ‘sport psychologists’ are similar to ‘mental skills coaches’

Possibly in terms of ability, this might occasionally be true. However, in terms of formal training and regulation, they couldn’t be further apart. Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologist (in Australia at least) are all registered psychologists. So what? This link does a better job than I ever could at explaining the benefits of choosing to work with a highly qualified and regulated professional. And this article from The Age highlights a possible ‘worst-case scenario’ of allowing unqualified individuals to “work on” the emotions of athletes. If the link doesn’t work it’s because the article has been removed but the basic details should now be permanently available via Wikipedia here. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 7: That a ‘sport psychologist’ only work with athletes

Not true. We have been operating for long enough now and have tracked enough data to be able to answer this categorically. Yes, the majority of our monthly clients are still athletes (70%). But the rest are a multitude of different kinds of performers. From politicians to dancers to students to emergency workers. One of the most significant group of non-athletes we work with a sporting coach. A lot more detail about this kind of work can be provided in this separate blog post and this one. It is my hope and belief that as time passes, a greater percentage of our work will be with coaches. Helping mentally astute coaches become even better they working with someone genuinely qualified in this area. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 8: The ‘Face To Face Session Are More Effective’ Myth

At Condor Performance we have been delivering sessions via video conference technology well before the Corona Virus hit us. Furthermore, we measure client satisfaction and can say with empirical confidence that there is no difference between “face-to-face” and “telehealth” sessions. In fact, according to our numbers, the clients who have all sessions via video conference do slightly better in terms of mental health and mental toughness outcomes. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

Myth 9: The ‘Experience Is Everything’ Myth

This sport psychology myth is the easiest to believe or understand. But it’s still wrong. The issue with the concept of experience is that it assumes the superior number of hours was done in the right way. It also assumed that the performer has the ability to learn from mistakes. As both of these assumptions are rare (in my experience) then in actual fact experience is overrated at best and quote often detrimental. Do you disagree? Argue your case below in the comments sections.

If you’d like to bust some more sport psychology myths have a listen to the answers to our FAQs here. Do you know of any other common sport psychology myths that are not covered above? If you do please add them to the comments sections below and we’ll then add them when we update this blog. If you disagree with any of these sport psychology myths please present your argument in the comments below.