This is Mental Health Awareness Week. A significant portion of the information that I am reading on the internet relates to the benefits of exercise to improve mental wellbeing, as well as reducing the impact, and delay the onset, of mental illnesses.
“Food is the most abused anxiety drug, and exercise is the most under-utilised anti-depressant.”—unknown
This isn’t about sucking eggs…
My own journey with exercise has certainly been a discovery of the self. Fully grasping that sport and exercise was good for me did not always translate into movement. It was that sense of fun that got me moving, not the opportunity to win, or even complete, because once I felt intimidated I’d simply back away—although I did have a mean streak of competitiveness when it came to rounders, hockey and French Cricket.
As a teenager, I over-compensated my exercising needs with eating, because I was worrying about the opposite effects of what girls my age were worrying about: I didn’t want to faint playing sport, I needed more energy to be faster, fitter, stronger, so I ate double the portions I needed to. I was alarmed that friends were skipping meals to slim down. The waif model industry was rife across the pages of every magazine I came across, and none of them ever appealed to who I was, or ever wanted to be. I would wonder, didn’t they want to be fit and strong too?
This lack of understanding nutrition and what was the right food to be gorging on (less bread and pasta, more salad and vegetables, for example) meant that at the age where I was just reaching my full height, I was also bursting outwards and was lovingly described as voluptuous. But in reality, I would have to move a lot more to shift the excess weight I was piling on, because it wasn’t actually helping me to feel fit. I was often breathless, I felt heavy, and I cried a lot over the spare tyre that I carried that my dad once referred to.
The effects of this aggrandisement had a profound impact on my self-esteem, and I was caught in that vicious cycle of feeling too fat to get out and get fitter, and needing to get fitter to reduce the fat that was excessive. It wasn’t just my confidence that was affected, my sleep also became erratic. I would often cry and be unable to have conversations without becoming extremely emotional or angry. I began skipping classes because I was so tired. Many of the subjects I was studying (originally four A-levels) began to drop in grades and I finished my final year not at all caring about studies, having refused to revise for an education system that only challenged my short-term memory, and not about who I intrinsically had become as a person and citizen of the world. I couldn’t care less about my future, because I was so low and so disgusted with myself.
All before I’d reached 20 years of age.
Fast forward ten years, my thirtieth year, following a gall bladder removal—incidentally missed for almost a year because I didn’t fit the profile of being fat and over-forty—I was in a terribly low place because I couldn’t exercise the way I had trained my body over the previous six years. Specifically not being able to train was putting me in a very low place.
When I am feeling fit and strong I am more capable of taking on the world.
Suddenly I felt alienated from the world I’d discovered, and the communities I had found allies in: triathlons, fell running, adventure racing.
Through desperation I turned to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) because my comfort eating of chocolate was hampering not only my drive to get out there and do something, but also allowing my weight to creep up on top of the effects of my muscles breaking down. It was a technique that would persuade my brain to view, think, smell and feel differently about chocolate. For two years this worked incredibly well, but like all muscles, the brain training would have to take place more than once in a lifetime to be kept active.
I sought out NLP because felt I was back in a crisis area that I didn’t want to relive as I recalled how painful it was for me through my teenage and young adult years. I had come to accept and realise deep down that when I am feeling fit and strong, I am more capable of taking on the world. That level of feeling fit will certainly be different for everyone, but I knew where it was for me, and I longed to be back there.
If only because it was one less thing to worry about.
Discovering the Support Network
Over the years my fitness has yo-yoed, and the link has always been as a result of struggling to cope with other areas of life: stress as a police officer, coping as a single mother, issues at work, pregnancy and training, finances, etc. When I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which had a crushing effect on my psyche alone, I turned back to fitness once the lights had come back on again—for a while there, I really did think I was a goner.
I knew exercise was my route to strength, happiness, and feeling empowered to do whatever I want to do with my life. In my former career, it was my commitment to my personal strength and fitness discipline that allowed me to feel equal to the men I worked with, and this felt right. I had earned my place and their respect and not expected them to lower their standards to match my own. I simply raised my standards and turned the tables.
Not long after this post-diagnosis re-training began, I began looking at Twitter again as a social tool though I really was confused and intimidated by it, and discovered the #UKRunChat community, which twice-a-week bantered about running related stuff. I felt I belonged, not because I was doing so well at that time, but because I had a decade-long history of being a runner and representing the country and other teams, and this experience is part of my mental wealth.
I am rich in experience in exercising for my mental heath.
I also cyber-met Dr Juliet McGrattan who was researching content for her book, Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health (follow the link for a discount on her book). She was researching stories for the chapter which discusses mental health. Now this isn’t a chapter specific to women, but the entire book focuses on women-specific issues as well as human issues, so as a family guide to health and being active, it makes for great advice for all.
Managing mental wellbeing and recognising the positive effects of exercising are part of her research, and this chapter. (You’ll find it in the chapter sandwiched between Menopause and Digestive System.) She also specifically advises using exercise as therapy.
Let me just write that again:
Exercise as therapy.
Exercise as Therapy
What we humans haven’t yet realised is that we are simply chasing our own tail here. We are prescribed pills, which incur side effects, I’ve had my fair share, still do, it’s pants. There is a substantial cost to our NHS, tax payers, etc. it’s a weird system, but my brain simply goes foggy with numbers, so enough of that, and this whole scheme keeps many pharmaceutical companies pretty happy with their bank balances.
But would you find a pharmaceutical company advising a GP to prescribe exercise? Of course not, nobody makes money that way.
Fortunately, there are doctors out there willing to face the camera and give this exact advice: just as Dr Juliet wants you to get active for your overall health, Dr Chris van Tulleken of ‘The Doctor who Gave Up Drugs’ (not to be confused with Xand van Tulleken, though easily done) explores issues of prescription pills and how else to combat conditions. The wild swimming is certainly a revitalising option, scary as heck, yes, but once you’ve done it, crikey, you really do want to go back in for more!
That’s all I wanted when I was lying in my bed, closed off from the world, knowing that the sun was glorious, the birds were singing, people were mowing lawns, the ideal running opportunity awaited. Only I couldn’t move. I couldn’t gather any movement that would allow that chain reaction to take me outside and start running. Inside my heart, I knew, that if someone were to come to my bedside and take my hand and say to me, “we’re going for a run”, I would go.
When depression takes hold, you are a much better sheep than an independent voice. People had to make my decisions because I couldn’t make any. I would just say, I don’t know. I don’t know. I know in my heart, but my heart is under strain and trying to hold me together on a frayed thread.
I just needed that support from someone to be my run buddy.
Do you have a run buddy?
Once I was feeling better and back running again (these things do eventually pass) it crossed my mind to begin my own running group, one that would take place during the day for other folk who also cannot make the training runs with the local club’s evening times, because of childcare or work etc., who felt intimidated by the group size, who needed a different approach, less speed, more welfare.
I admit I was intimidated by my local running club. Ridiculous, perhaps, having already been part of the local hockey and netball clubs, and competed against the runners when I was racing as part of a triathlon club in another town. But my head was in a different place now. I now have a diagnosis that somedays feels like it sticks out of my mind like a thorny horn.
A morning or daytime run would mean getting outside at least once a day, always in daylight, helping to realign that circadian rhythm that really does go squiffy with depression, mania, and insomnia. Only, my social anxiety defeats me on the task. And so my running remains solitary, because there is no run group that caters for my time of day, for someone without a car, or for my specific needs of emotional wellbeing. But starting a group feels too big a step just now.
And then there’s the question of starting a local parkrun on our beautiful trail routes…I digress.
My running is a solitary effort but that’s also OK, because I use it as my therapy for my Mindful & Creative Adventures. I take my camera with me, no longer training for speed, instead training for strength, endurance and social awareness. I keep out of my own head by listening to the birds, looking out for the butterflies and foxes, the views, the colours, the quirky details that catch my eye. It’s mostly trail because tarmac is just ridiculous for the human body, that point alone will be realised eventually. Hopefully. I make my runs about something other than having to get fit, because the thought of having to get fit can often lead back to shame and defeat.
This form of therapy stops the arguments in my head, and allows my brain to have some time out. And the best thing is, it didn’t cost me a penny.
It’s free, and yet…we have yet to be able to receive a prescription that gives those of us who don’t know where to start, how to start, who to start with, a platform to get going the way that we need it to be.
However, it’s beginning to happen.
Initiatives are beginning to take shape at a policy level:
- Mental Health Ambassadors as part of the RunTogether initiative by England Athletics
- Jog Scotland initiative from Scottish Athletics have announced a partnership with SAMH
Seeing this filtered down into all areas of society—schools, workplace, institutions—is not too far removed.
Recognising that office workers would benefit from moments to sweat off some stress during their working day, as part of their paid working week, rather than be left with the responsibility of finding the time to de-stress outside of their work time, when it’s potentially the work itself that is creating the stressful situation…surely this is human resources at its fundamental element? No humans…no work. Look after resources: look after their mental health.
Over to you
How do you feel about using Exercise as Thearpy?
Do you have a support group to reach out to to train with?
What support would you need to help you get moving again, moving more?
Please comment below, or get in touch via email.