Studies have shown that staying healthy and fit can help combat a number of mental and stress-related issues, including depression, fatigue, sleeping disorders, and other emotional issues. Fitness expert, Mandla “Amos” Nhlako, illustrates how health and fitness can help boost your mental strength.
Compiled by: Musa “Gift” Mqwashu
It is widely known that seeking help for any form of mental issues can be burdensome, especially for black men. Many numb themselves with disruptive coping mechanisms or die in silence, and it shows in the high suicide rates among men. The Covid-19 pandemic has also further aggravated the mental health issues and left many struggling to cope.
Mandla Nhleko, a personal trainer, lecturer and strength and conditioning coach, notes that regular exercise can have an impact on one’s mood, decrease stress and anxiety, increase productivity, reduce absenteeism from work and boost self-confidence.
He adds that his personal fitness journey transformed his psychological life, from being a very quiet and short tempered teenager into a well-balanced and content adult.
“When I started my fitness journey, everything changed: I became more confident,” he says. “I used exercise to calm myself down and to control my emotions.”
According to countless observational studies, it has been proven that physically active people are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. Mandla also believes that “fitness makes you a better person, and gives you the drive to chase your goals with a healthy body and mind.”
He recounts the current Covid-19 pandemic as being one of the most mentally challenging periods for him and for many. “When the president announced lockdown level-5, I was devastated as a fitness practitioner because the gyms were shut down, which meant no income to continue to support my family.”
With the social media take-over, there has also been a significant rise in body dysmorphia issues, which are often not addressed, especially because they are considered to be feminine issues. However, with everyone wanting to look picture-perfect, the standards of beauty have become almost impossible, leading to body image issues and eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and muscle dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia is a condition where the sufferer has intense thoughts of wanting to look more muscular; it’s the reverse of anorexia.
These people may spend hours trying to fix their appearance by excessive training, cosmetic procedures or may avoid social events or taking photos.
Mandla says these linear societal image standards are putting pressure on the entire human race, including black men. He believes that one of the ways to tackle this issue would be for people to stop being so largely influenced by the unrealistic social media world.
“We need to stop spending so much time fixing the external while ignoring the deeper part of ourselves – our minds,” he adds. “Do you! Forget about what people say, as long as you’re living a healthy lifestyle and have ways to manage stress, the rest should not be a factor.”
With the world rapidly changing, come many stressors and psychological effects with trying to adapt. As a result, Mandla echoes that there has never been a right time to adopt a healthy lifestyle than now. “Back in the day, we were not exposed to so much technology. Now we spend so much of our time on our gadgets than on our well-being, and this is not good for our mental health.”
“We are all faced with so many day-to-day challenges; if don’t look after our health that can lead to depression and anxiety, especially if we self-medicate with guilty pleasures than engaging in any positive physical activities.”
He adds that in this online era, many people have turned health and fitness into a form of vanity instead of a self-care tool, “some people think living a healthy lifestyle is for the working class, middle class and upper class, which is false.”
He believes that this can be improved by educating society about accessible fitness methods, so they can begin to see health and fitness as a form of therapy instead of a tool to cover up insecurities and imperfections. “We need to start introducing mass participation in communities (like local boot camps) and teach people the importance of fitness.”
Mandla warns young people, who are currently in the throes of depression to speak out or seek help and not turn to self-disruptive coping methods, like alcohol, drugs and sex.
“Using substances to escape your challenges is not a healthy and permanent solution; rather focus on things that will yield good results and solutions for your future.”
He breaks down effective and practical ways of using fitness as therapy for those who are struggling to even get out of bed: “We must think of our bodies as our life engines, and if we don’t look after our bodies, in time they will give in. It does not necessarily mean everyone must do a 10-kilometre run every day, but we need to start small and make small changes.”