REAL LIFE STORIES
Adrian - How exercise boosted my mental health

Next week I will achieve a significant anniversary. A year ago, as a result of a conversation with my doctor I began to exercise. You might say ‘big deal’ but I am not the exercising kind of person and with a busy and demanding job, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to fit regular exercise into schedule. Against the odds and with a bit of determination, next week I will successfully have exercised three times a week for a whole year. The results have been quite dramatic and whilst I started off small with brisk walks, I now regularly run 5k (I am hoping to increase that distance in coming months). I now feel so much fitter and amazingly the doctor has confirmed that my efforts have made me more healthy. A few months ago he was ready to put me on statins as a result of my high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other risk factors but after taking my blood pressure, he said he now didn’t think that it was necessary because things had improved as a result of my exercise. I was thrilled that my hard work had paid off.

However, the reason that I am writing this is not primarily because of the physical health benefits. Some years ago, I became quite unwell with mental health issues. ‘Burn out’ and stress led to me taking time off work and I experienced some quite serious ‘lows’. My doctor who was very supportive diagnosed anxiety. I was lucky and had some excellent counselling provided through my employer and I also began taking anti-depressants. I realised that anxiety had really been a part of my life for as long as I could remember but understanding that meant that I could tackle it and minimise the negative impact on my daily life. I could write lots about strategies that have helped and really turned things around (self-care is so important and yet is so often neglected in our busy lives) but that is perhaps for another time. Instead I want to explain the very positive effect that regular exercise has had on my mental health.

A quick look online shows that it is almost universally accepted that exercise is good for mental health as much as physical health but the exact scientific reason is unknown. There are suggestions that exercise improves blood flow and oxygen to the brain, that different areas of the brain being stimulated and that the production of endorphins, the body’s ‘happy chemicals’ are all factors. It is also suggested that exercise responds in some way to the body’s ‘flight or fight’ mechanism and thereby reduces stress, that it can increase confidence and self esteem and also simply provide ‘space’ in your day. Well I have to point out that I am a history teacher and certainly not a scientist, so I can’t talk with any authority on the scientific reasons for the benefits of exercise on mental health. What I can do however, is from personal experience vouch for the positive effects. Running regularly has given me a vastly improved sense of wellbeing. My lungs feel more ‘open’ and I physically feel better in myself. This improved physical health has to have an impact on my mental health? There have been days when I have felt so stressed, so anxious and far too tired to run but I have done it any way. The result is that within minutes of starting, that knot in my stomach, the nagging anxiety just starts to dissipate. It might be that my focus has shifted but certainly something is happening inside me (told you I am not a scientist!) that is making me feel better. The other benefit is that as difficult as it can sometimes be to run after a long day at work, as much as it might be tempting to slump in front of the tv or do something else, the run is a break, strangely almost a pause in my day. It is me time. Sometimes I listen to music or a podcast but other times I make the conscious decision to run without distraction. That time helps me think and occasionally get things into perspective. Such has been the benefit of my running, I miss it if I have to change days and I even run when I am on holiday.

So like I did, you could be thinking ‘that’s alright for him, I am not the running type’. Well, when I started I could run for no more than a minute or two without getting seriously out of breath. The way I did it was using one of the many apps available and there are lots to choose from. The first I tried was a very easy ‘Baby Steps to 5K’, just building up slowly the distance and also moving from brisk walking to running. These days I just track my runs on an app and I don’t follow a particular regime. I like to run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but if that isn’t possible, as long as I do three exercise sessions a week that’s okay. I try to get as close to 5K as I can each time but I don’t pressure myself and if it is a shorter run, at least I did something – I think it is important to be determined but don’t put pressure on yourself. I do my runs as soon as I get in from work but you can find a time that suits you. Some friends run before work but despite being a morning person, I have struggled when I have tried that. I get home, do my run and then the rest of the evening is my own. It is surprising how quickly that became routine, even though I said initially I would never find the time.

So this has been a bit of a ramble but if you take anything from what I have said, exercise does for whatever reason have a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing. And by way of encouragement, if a middle aged, slightly tubby, history teacher can do it, well anyone can.

 

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