Forget the six-pack: 3 men on how the mental health benefits of exercise have changed their life

Three men share how keeping active has improved their lives (Alamy/PA)
Three men share how keeping active has improved their lives (Alamy/PA) Three men share how keeping active has improved their lives (Alamy/PA)

When Sam Thomas started going to the gym in his mid-20s, it was all about honing his physique. Over a decade later, he’s still a regular – but for different reasons.

“I’ve said numerous times – it started off with vanity, but it became about sanity,” says Thomas, now 37. “When I was in my 20s, the initial goals were to get fit, boost confidence and be more attractive to men, etc, etc. Now, it’s become more about maintaining positive mental health.”

Movember shines a light on men’s health – and male mental health remains as important as ever.

According to the charity Mind, one in four people experience a mental health problem each year. But while only 36% of NHS referrals for talking therapies are for men, they are at significantly higher risk of suicide – 75% of all suicide deaths in the UK are among men, according to ONS data, and it’s the leading cause of death in men under 50.

Mental health can be complex and accessing professional help is often crucial. But there’s a lot to be said for self-help measures too – and for Thomas, exercise is right up there.

The Brighton resident, who is “in recovery from eating disorders, alcohol addiction and complex-PTSD”, says his workouts have helped him “navigate” the recovery process, as well as becoming a vital tool for “preserving” his wellbeing day-to-day.

He’s not alone in this. In a recent survey by leisure centre chain Better, which polled over 2,000 men in the UK who participate in sports/exercise, 96% agreed it had positively benefited their mental health. Two in five said it reduced their stress levels, while 35% said it lowered feelings of anxiety and depression.

It was lockdown, when everything suddenly shut, which made Thomas realise just how much his workouts had been helping him mentally.

“When we were able to get back in, I really began to look at fitness very differently. It wasn’t just about just looking good and all that stuff – it was about being able to process things and stabilise,” Thomas explains. “And what I found was, if I went into the gym stressed, that would bring my stress levels down. If I went to the gym tired, it would bring my energy levels up. Whatever mood I was in, it just gave me that reset.”

Andrew Hunt, 46, also recalls his relationship with fitness shifting during the pandemic. With a history of depression, Hunt suffered a breakdown in his mid-20s.

“It was a full-on breakdown, I ended up unemployed and very depressed,” he recalls. Recovery was a long process involving many things, with exercise playing a central role.

“When I was younger, I used to play football, but I got a couple of ankle breaks so stopped playing in my early 30s. That was my main form of exercise, and I found it difficult to find a replacement,” Hunt explains. “I went a couple of years without doing regular exercise and really noticed how that made me feel. You start to feel out of shape physically, and that gets reflected in how you feel emotionally and mentally.”

In 2012, he co-founded Aduna Superfoods, a certified BCorp working with small-scale producers in Africa. It reignited a sense of purpose for Hunt – and eventually introduced him to new ways of working-out.

“We usually have very health-conscious people working for the business, and one of my colleagues introduced me to [the cardio and strength training class] Barry’s Bootcamp, which at that time, to be honest, wasn’t something that appealed to me. I’d never been on a treadmill in my life! But I really loved it, and I did that quite intensively for a few years. It really improved my fitness, also my self-image, self-esteem and general sharpness.”

When lockdown hit, he switched to home workouts and took up running – again, something that had never appealed before.

“I can’t say it appeals to me now,” he laughs. “But I run most mornings now. It gets you outside, and you experience the seasons,” adds Hunt, who runs in his local park in North London.

“When I exercise in the morning, I’m so much more powerful in my day having moved physically. I also have a running partner and that combination of exercise, with the outdoors and a bit of nature and regular company has been so good for my mental and emotional health.

“Because we run three or four times a week, it’s not like we’re old friends having a long overdue catch-up. We’re just talking about the daily stuff in our lives, which I think we men don’t often do.”

Dan Sparkes, 36, also appreciates the social aspect of exercise, especially after moving from the Birmingham area to Oxfordshire recently.

Somebody tagged him in a post on social media about Football in Mind – a grassroots football club in Eynsham set up in memory of Daniel Johnson, who took his own life in 2021 aged 26. Supported by Mind and Oxfordshire FA, the club meets weekly, providing a welcoming space to get together for a friendly match, knowing it’s a safe space to chat and seek support if needed too.

“I’d not long moved to the area so I didn’t know many people, and I love playing football and just wanted to make some friends and get out of the house,” says Sparkes of his decision to get involved. “I’ve played a couple of times now. It’s fun, everyone’s been nice and it’s not taken too seriously. It takes your mind off things for an hour, and makes you feel like you’re just with mates having a laugh, really.”

Having “had quite a few struggles with anxiety”, he also now counts staying active as a positive tool for his mental health.

“It was quite difficult to speak about [my mental health] initially, because I didn’t feel comfortable, then eventually I thought I’ve just got to say something. I went to the doctors’ and started talking about it more, and trying to do things that are positive to try and help with it,” Sparkes explains.

With the adjustment of moving and being further away from his parents and friends, Sparkes realised he needed to do something to support himself right now. Also a fan of the gym, he too notices the difference in his mental wellbeing when he isn’t keeping active.

“One of the things I always tell myself is, you have never left the gym or left playing football and felt worse. You always feel better,” he says – and he’d encourage anyone to find the thing that works for them.

“If football isn’t your thing, there’s something that is for everybody. And if you find something with a community of people and start making progress, you do start feeling good, and then you can make yourself a routine and have some goals around it.

“It does massively improve how you feel about yourself.”

If you are struggling and need to speak to someone, the Samaritans helpline operates 24/7. Call free on 116 123.