So you've been lumbered with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, panic attacks or any co-morbid combination of the above. The good news is you're not alone. The bad news is these conditions are now at epidemic levels. Part of this could be because of an imbalance between our psychological and physical states.

Physical and psychological imbalance

In the good old days, life was physically much, much tougher, but an argument can be made that it was also psychologically easier. It is likely we lived more from moment-to-moment and didn't have the cacophony of information that we are bombarded with in the present day. We also lived more physical lives. We had to walk and run a lot more and were likely to have more physical occupations that didn't involve such sedentary lifestyles. Today, we are experiencing a rapid decline in physical activity to the point where many of us only move from our couch, to the car and then the office chair and back again. And then there are the psychological stresses. There is a constant stream of information on an almost second-by-second basis, telling us what we should or shouldn't be, what to do, or not to do, what we could be, what we can do, and what we can't. It's a constant flow of can, could, shouldn't, can't, buy, sell, cheat, don't cheat, eat and don't eat. All this causes a physical and psychological imbalance, and our brains short-circuit. To cope with the psychological side, a good technique is meditation, especially mindfulness, but here we want to focus on the physical imbalance.


Back to basics

Quite simply put, you need to take your body back to where it naturally wants to be, and that's the dark ages. One of the best ways to do this is by lifting heavy weights. From a mental health perspective, this allows us to push against something in a healthy way that stimulates all those feel-good chemicals released by hard exercise. Resistance training is now back in-vogue as new evidence suggests it is just as good as cardiovascular exercise for controlling our weight and fitness levels, and may even have some additional benefits such as sustained calorie burn and bone density levels. It also kicks anxiety and depression in the guts. Hard!

If you have never done any kind of resistance training before, then start off light and easy. Don't overdo it, and slowly build your way up. Start off with a full-body workout – where you work the entire body in one day, but do less exercises. Use machines at the beginner stage, as they allow you to build proper technique, but once you have the form down, move to free-weights as they work many of the supporting muscles a lot better. Free-weights make use of compound exercises and more closely mimic our natural physical environment.

A typical anxiety-busting workout using machines for beginners may look something like this:


Monday, Wednesday, Friday

  • Stretching

  • 5-10 mins on treadmill to warm-up, or kick and punch a bag

  • Legs - Leg machine press – 3 sets of 10 repetitions, 3 x 10

  • Chest - Machine bench press – 3 x 10

  • Upper back - Lat pulldown – 3 x 10

  • Lower back - Seated machine row – 3 x 10

  • Shoulders - Shoulder machine press – 3 x 10

  • Arms - Bicep curl – 3 x 10

  • Arms - Tricep pushdown – 3 x 10.

Once you have the hang of this and have built up some strength and technique, you can make the transition to free weights. Try this:

  • Stretching

  • 5-10 mins on treadmill to warm-up, or kick and punch a bag

  • Legs – Squats 3 x 10 (also works lower back, abs, and even some upper body. Squats, deadlifts and bench-presses are the kings of exercises).

  • Lower back - Deadlifts – 3 x 10 (also works legs, abs, shoulders, lats)

  • Upper back – wide grip pull-ups with hands in front - 3 x to failure ie as many as you can (also works shoulders, triceps, deltoids)

  • Chest - Flat bench press – 3 x 10 (also works shoulders, triceps, deltoids)

  • Shoulders – deltoid dumbbell raise – 3 x 10

  • Biceps – bicep curls – 3 x 10

  • Triceps – Skullcrushers – 3 x 10.

As an option, due to the compound exercises associated with using free weights, you can safely ditch the arm and shoulder workout because the previous exercises already worked them. Keep them if you want extra attention on these areas. Once you have become an experienced lifter, if you wish you can then move onto a split workout.

Hints and tips

Try this beginners program for 3 months and then see how you feel. Keep in mind a certain work ethic while in the gym. No chit-chat – and this includes mental chatter. Clean you mind! No gazing for an hour at attractive members of the opposite sex and wishing you had something you don't or aren't allowed to have (OK, just a wee, polite look. None of us are made of stone. But no obsessing now!). You are there to self-improve, not window-shop.

For mental health, also do this with any regular counseling you may be receiving and prescribed medications you may be taking, and consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Any good therapist will always recommend exercise as part of any treatment plan to help combat mental illness. Exercise improves the quality of your life and balances you out mentally and physically. Forget the buffed, photo-shopped, and most likely steroid-assisted models and body-builders on the covers of magazines. Exercise for your body and your mind.