Can CrossFit Improve Your Mental Health?

The Ben Bergeron Beep test is an EMOM for as long as possible of 7 Thrusters, 7 Pullups, 7 Burpees. The final score being the total number of rounds completed before being able to complete a round before the start of the next minute. It’s a killer WOD. Not only a test of athletic performance but also an incredible test of mental toughness. Its very easy to give up on the workout mentally before your body reaches failure. Its basically a test of “Whatya got?” It is also (Like everything in CrossFit) scalable regardless of ability, age or if you have had babies…….

I was one year into CrossFit post babies when a coach told me I couldn’t and shouldn’t do this WOD. He said it was too hard, I was too old, I was a Mum and I shouldn’t be aspiring to be like the 22-year-old athlete at his box. He said this in front of a class full of women after I described excitedly how I wanted to try “Ben Bergeron’s beep test.” He said out loud all the things my negative inner voice says to me on a daily basis and it honestly destroyed my CrossFit loving soul and the limited confidence I’d had for a little bit.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a network of people who don’t agree with this view of me. A community that genuinely care about my health and wellbeing and who support my journey 100%. A small network of people who told me to ignore that opinion, keep training and celebrated with me when I got 2 rounds on my first BB beep test attempt. There have been several attempts since and each time I improve I feel empowered not only in the gym, but the fact I pushed through and didn’t give in to those negative thoughts gives me additional confidence in all other areas of my life.  Yep one WOD did that! CrossFit for me is an anxiety, stress reducing saviour. It allows me to keep fit and healthy whilst challenging me both mentally and physically with the added benefit of a community of people all helping me along the way.

So… how can CrossFit improve your mental health as well as your physical health?  We all know there are multiple physical benefits that come with regular exercise, such as improvements in cardiac health, mobility and longevity. However, research has also demonstrated that exercise provides significant improvements in mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood,  thus improving self-esteem and cognitive function.2 Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms of depression and social withdrawal as an added benefit to a healthier body .3 CrossFit ticks all those get fit and strong boxes but offers so much more in relation to mental wellbeing.

  1. Increased confidence and mental resilience:

Confidence is something that most of us will struggle with at some point in our lives, it can also have a massive effect on our mental health and is often a contributing factor to depression.

When you take risks and succeed you build confidence. For some that might be just walking into the box and getting through the workout whilst for others it’s the learning of new skills, pushing through challenges and not giving up.   Regularly taking part in CrossFit classes will unavoidably lead to improved self-assurance, knowing that you faced up to a challenge and beat it will not only show in your confidence in the gym but stretches to everyday life. After you get that first Muscle up/Pullup/Box Jump or even first 400m Run the sense of achievement gives you all the feels that you can achieve more. Ultimately, this has a positive impact on our overall mental health.

  1. A supportive community:

The number one foundation of CrossFit is the community – it is unique; there is always someone there to encourage you, cheering you on through a strenuous WOD or partnering up with you for an arduous workout. The social support in CrossFit provides motivation but also a sense of belonging, being part of something and connecting with people on an emotional level. Group exercise has been shown to be particularly beneficial, as it introduces a strong social element to getting fit and feeling great. Making friends with people who will cheer you on along the way is a great confidence booster and means you’ve always got someone to talk to.

  1. Positive body image:

In CrossFit bodies are defined by what they can do rather than how they look, which usually means your body ends up looking a whole lot better even though your goals are not centred around obsessing over body image.

CrossFit isn’t about what you look like, everyone is an athlete, appearance doesn’t matter – effort does. When we stop fixating on what our bodies look like and more on our physical fitness and what our bodies can do, we can start to change negative body image issues. Furthermore, the numerous levels of training and the spirit of camaraderie makes everyone feel welcome and appreciated, regardless of what their bodies look like, while the absence of mirrors emphasises the importance of function over appearance. One does not go to the box to admire their flexing arm muscles or squatting lower body. This take on body image and exercise is refreshing and something you will find in CrossFit gyms around the world. As a woman it has also saved me from years of yoyo dieting and awakened a newfound liking and admiration for my body.

  1. Focus on intrinsic motivation:

Motivation is an obvious topic when we are discussing exercise, but it is also an important psychological factor that can be linked to the subject of mental wellness. There are two types of motivation – intrinsic motivation, which means taking part in an activity as it is personally fulfilling and extrinsic motivation, in which you engage in an activity to gain an external reward. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination are at the core of CrossFit, you take part in CrossFit to better yourself not to win an award or first place. The culture of CrossFit lends itself to this intrinsic behaviour such as recording your PB’s and times in WODs for your own benefit and not that of others. This focus on intrinsic motivation helps build our self-reliance and self-worth.

  1. Stress relief:

After a tough day, exercising is one of the greatest ways to release stress. Yes, that exercise ‘high’ does exist, and it is one of the best ways to forget about your problems while also doing something that is good for your body. Endorphins released boost your mood and energy levels, reduce stress and tension, as well as improve emotions and sleep patterns. When you sleep well and feel great, challenges are easier to overcome and pressure from work or home will seem less overwhelming.

Jen Kinsella – Coach & Co-Owner – H1 CrossFit

  1. Schultz, Jordan T.; Parker, Adam; Curtis, Drew; Daniel, Jordan; and Huang, Han-Hung (2016) “The Physiological and Psychological Benefits of CrossFit Training – A Pilot Study,” International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: Vol. 2 : Iss. 8 , Article 14.
    Available at: https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijesab/vol2/iss8/14
  2. Callaghan P.. Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2004;11:476–483. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
  3. Guszkowska M.. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood [in Polish] Psychiatr Pol. 2004;38:611–620. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
  4. Peluso MA, Andrade LH.. Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood. Clinics. 2005;60:61–70. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
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