Approaching the topic of mental health comes with many challenges and a whole host of taboos, which is why it’s so important to continue the conversation. I caught up with award-winning coach, and author, Omar Al Duri to talk about mental fitness in a world of sport. With fifteen years in the fitness industry as a trainer and international football coach, Omar also hosts his own radio show here in Dubai – the Half Time Show, hosting a range of guests discussing a myriad of topics including mental health, gut health and the importance of movement. Recently publishing his book, RESET, Omar explores the elements of the journey towards wellbeing through the concept of five different dominos, with the goal of achieving a holistic balance when tackling life’s day to day challenges.

Imprint: When it comes to fitness, how do we build endurance through mental strength?
Omar: Just like physical fitness, mental fitness requires practice daily! The power of the mind can influence the way we move, behave, love and work.

“No one would ever say that someone with a broken arm or a broken leg is less than a whole person, but people say that all the time about people with mental illness.” — Elyn R. Saks

Being vulnerable is actually a strength and not a weakness. It’s not something we can conquer in a day and requires us to detach from the mayhem we find ourselves in with work, family and other responsibilities. Being able to detach from the daily stress, anxiety and pressure requires us to flex our brain in order to reset. Repetition is key to building habits which only become sustainable when we continue to practice the things we need to work on. The root of that also comes from accountability which is easy to overlook sometimes.

Imprint: What is the link between mental health and fitness?
Omar: I like to look at the link as ‘mental fitness’ because it requires us to practice it. Mental fitness requires love, empathy, compassion, gratitude, mindfulness and time to grow. Self love is often neglected because we are under pressure to love others and do things for other people. The truth is, we don’t love ourselves, which can hurt those around us in the long run. We need to learn to want what we have, not to have what we want, in order to achieve stable and steady happiness. This can sometimes stem from our childhood and upbringing which carries over into adulthood.

Imprint: What are some of the specific effects that fitness/ exercise can have on the brain?
Omar: Everyone reacts differently to fitness and exercise, but the term ‘wellbeing’ is far more relevant to how our brain responds to movement. Movement is medicine because the nervous system reacts to it in a positive light. Good stress on the body can cause us to be happier and more free. Going for a walk has as much mental benefit as it does physical, if not more because it allows you to clear your thoughts, detoxify your system and reset your mood. Meditation, or breath work can reset the brain and help us find clarity in our everyday life.

Imprint: Fitness, in a broad sense is often used as a form of ‘therapy’ – how effective is this for a general population of people? (Think lockdown and COVID restrictions)
Omar: It has forced everyone to RESET and value what matters most: What we need, what we spend time doing, who we see, who we invest our time with, how we value people, what places we would like to see in the world, what we travel for, and how important family is. Many people have lost their lives due to this pandemic. We are also fortunate to have technology which can bridge the gap during these restrictive times; had this been 30-40 years ago, none of that would have been possible.

Imprint: How do we build more awareness around mental health in a fitness world?
Omar: Personally, I continued to question my own self-worth, self-love and self-value when tackling my own mental health. With my Middle Eastern roots and upbringing, discussing personal feelings wasn’t always easy to do. As a personal coach and radio presenter who covers the subject of wellbeing, the more I listen to people – whether clients, athletes, friends or family, the more I was able to identify many common issues we all face.

Despite having a platform to discuss these issues, raising awareness in the region has been somewhat of a challenge. We also need to learn to give more and not be sucked into the pressure of social media in the fitness world which can be toxic. Happiness doesn’t come through selfishness but through selflessness. Everything you do comes back around. Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person. We build more awareness by listening more and building the confidence to discuss mental health globally. Things are getting better in that aspect but we are still losing people on a daily to suicide which means there’s a lot more work to be done.

Imprint: Do you believe that many taboos around mental health are related to cultural/ societal pressure?
Omar: It’s hard to just pinpoint it to that, but our responsibility as coaches is far greater now because following a trend or a hot topic seems to be the way to get more recognition which isn’t always the right way. Society has its own pressure and culture has its own expectations. We are all taught in different ways, which would cause a difference in opinion but as long as we are open to improving then we can share our opinions and not make it seem like a cult. Whether you are vegan or not for example, it’s OK to listen to someone’s beliefs and absorb the information. Whether you do yoga or not, it’s positive to take the benefits and implement that in your own programme, but not feel pressure to join a group or society because of expectations. It comes down to knowledge and education and the willingness to learn more and enhance your own mindset.

Everyone’s approach will be different, but the main takeaway from this, is simply the fact that we are so quick to focus on training our bodies, on jumping into a gym routine based purely on physicality, when in fact we have to do just as much work psychologically, to make the former effective and sustainable. For questions and coaching enquiries feel free to get in touch here.

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