Get mentally fit… but at your own pace

Sport is a very personal and unique way to spend your time. This could be team sports, or it can be entirely solitary. It’s all about what you feel comfortable with, and how you personally choose to spend your leisure time.

The BBC recently reported that the University of Suffolk arranged for students that feel disconnected be accompanied by a buddy to a variety of sporting activities that included Zumba, swimming and badminton. The idea was to tackle isolation and intervene before underlying mental health issues could cause problems for the students. It proved very effective and has now been added to the university’s wellbeing services as standard.

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Escapism

It’s become apparent that exercise is a great way to channel energy and dissociate from mental ill health, be it for an easy 30 minute workout, or a rigorous training regime. I have been delving into some stories that are truly inspiring and goes to show how much sport can revive you from the depths of any emotional turmoil you may find yourself in.

There have been numerous studies showing that being physically active and taking part in regular activity can regulate your sleeping, put you in a better mood because of all the lovely endorphins, and reduce levels of anxiety. This is because it acts as a distraction and makes your brain focus on something entirely different. Exercising can also bolster self-esteem, not only will you feel accomplished having achieved your goals, but you’ll also start to look and feel healthier. Above all else, exercise can provide social support, especially in team sports where it strengthens the feeling of community and likeminded-ness.

One step at a time

I recently read a fascinating book called ‘Jog On’ by Bella Mackie, a journalist who had always had bouts of anxiety, depression and fights with her self-confidence. The book was extremely honest, and she described how in her late 20s her marriage broke down and made her spiral rapidly into depression. One day, she put on her trainers and went for a short run, no longer than 5 minutes and quickly got a stitch and went home. But the next day she went out and ran for a minute longer. This pattern continued until she was running miles and miles, and her marriage become something that didn’t engulf her anymore; running had empowered her to feel back in control and positive about her life.

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.
— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In a similar vein, Dame Kelly Holmes, our decorated Olympian and national treasure recently spoke very candidly about her battles with anxiety, depression and self-harm. She spoke about how succeeding in her goal to become an Olympic athlete was her ‘saving grace’ and if she had given up (which she was tempted to do many times), she would have regretted it for the rest of her life. However, she also said: “Staying fit and active and keeping the brain healthy is different to pushing yourself to such an extreme.”

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In a recent survey by a Cycleplan, they discovered that a whopping 75% of cyclists noticed an improvement within their mental wellbeing. Lizzie Deignan, Olympic Road Race silver medallist, talks about cycling as a therapy. She said: “Mental wellbeing is the most important cycling benefit for me. I rely on cycling and exercise to relieve any anxiety or stress that I may have built up.”

Apparently this isn’t a new thought, in 1885 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Being mentally fit

I think Dame Kelly gives us some much-needed advice: we need to be fit and stay healthy but not to an extreme point where we begin to lose ourselves. Bella (who speaks to us mere mortals and not Olympians) possibly gives the most relatable advice: take it just a little bit at a time. We don’t start with a few lunges and then sign up for a marathon. We train, we sweat, we struggle, and yes we may even cry. But then we stop crying and feel stronger, more motivated and fit. This is exactly the process we need to go through with our mental fitness.

Take your time, this isn’t a race. You’ve got this!