The mental health benefits of sport

Exercise has lots of known benefits – improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, increased bone density etc., but the mental health benefits are, if not ignored, rarely celebrated as much as the physical – there’s no ‘before and after’ transformation photo, little obvious outwardly change… and yet for me, the mental health benefits of exercise are SO much more important than anything else. Better still than simply exercising, SPORTS can have an even larger positive effect. Initiatives such as England Athletics’ #runandtalk and Sport England’s ‘Get Set to Go‘ have started to open up the conversation about mental health, as well as make social sports more accessible to all.

Countless studies have linked physical activity to lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress, even improving conditions such as ADHD and PTSD – and there’s a particular class of exercise that does it better than any other. Sports – the kind of exercise where there’s a particular goal – has helped me and countless others both physically and mentally.

Throughout my life I have gone through various sports, training consistently, motivated by the daily mental improvements it helped me feel. When I was 15 I got into squash in a big way – it was the antidote to all negative emotions I had been feeling for many years. Constantly exhausted, depressed and feeling powerless, with low self-esteem to boot, I disliked school and struggled everyday, sadly assuming that that was just how I was meant to feel. As a teenager at a top school, I felt pressure to perform in academics whilst excelling in my social life, physical health, looks and home life – an impossible task that left me always feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel just to stay in the same place.

Getting up and doing things wasn’t always on the front of my mind during the time I was depressed. Although I was at boarding school and had little choice in the matter, I would sometimes zombie my way through the days, and sports was initially a real struggle – I hated it until I was 15 because I was bad at everything I had tried. However, school did teach me the discipline of getting up and out even when I didn’t want to. Especially when I didn’t want to. Being semi forced to play a sport 3 times a week was so tough at first, but once I paid attention to how it made me feel, I would start to look forward to the times I could leave the classroom and head to the court, ready to set aside the day’s worries and fall into the rhythm of training. For anyone struggling with depression and/or anxiety, one quick piece of advice is to get out into nature. Walking is good, running is better. Just keep moving forwards – it does wonders for your mind.

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Vitamin D deficiency is common in the UK and can worsen depression – get outside!

Through daily squash training I was able to see myself improving, getting stronger, fitter and faster whilst spending time with a community that was entirely focussed on enjoyment and improvement. There’s nothing better for your self-esteem than working hard to reach a goal and your hard work paying off. If it’s possible to get addicted to exercise I did, training up to 7h a week on top of other sports. The intensity at which I worked meant that over the following 2 years I became good enough to compete in the national schools championships as the number 1 player for my school. But it wasn’t the winning I cared about – the best thing about it was the way it made me feel. It was that high that I was chasing. When you feel totally out of control with your life, having that one thing that you can control is a godsend.

I also started horse riding in a serious way at this point. The unique thing with horse riding is that horses are terrifyingly good at mirroring emotions. It is impossible to feel stressed or distracted whilst jumping around a ring if you actually want to get very far. So every time I headed to the stables I learned to leave my fears and worries at the stable door and spend an hour without focussing on anything but me and the 17hh (huge) muscle machine beneath me.

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Nothing beats the feeling of horse riding

After I left school I wasn’t able to play squash or ride so much – frequent travel before heading to university meant that it was impossible to find a routine, but the discipline training taught me translated well into other areas of my life. I still revelled in playing squash when I got the chance and picked it up any time I had the opportunity. Being good isn’t the point – it’s all the other benefits that are there regardless of your standard. My year away from the stresses of education tempered my obsession with exercising, allowing me to enjoy it for what it was every time I played. I learned balance and the importance of working on all aspects of health and happiness, including taking care of my body, resting and fuelling it properly. No more 10h training weeks and hello rest days.

Once I arrived at university I picked up running and whilst I loved it, it didn’t hold the same mind-clearing properties that squash and riding had before. I spent university mixing up weights in the gym and running, but I was missing that little extra something you get when you really ‘click’ with a sport. Leaving university led me to boxing, which I now practise weekly. I’m not the first person to talk about the benefits of boxing for mental health – Prince Harry alerted the nation of the power of boxing for coping with mental stress back in April. Multiple professional boxers have done the same, despite the history of corruption in some areas of the sport. Ellie Goulding, too, voiced almost exactly my sentiments about the sport:

“It wasn’t about any change in my outward appearance; it was about seeing and feeling myself get better and stronger. It carried over into other areas of my life, and now I truly feel that exercise – however you like to work out – is good for the soul,”

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The university athletics club kept me busy and fit

What all of the above sports have in common, I have now realised, is that they don’t allow any space or time for outside emotions and negativity to join. Focussing your attention on your goal – the next shot, the perfect line into a jump, the rhythm of your punches – leads to a sense of power and achievement at the end of a session that isn’t found anywhere else. It’s a kind of enforced mindfulness not found in all forms of exercise, banishing dark thoughts whilst simultaneously releasing endorphins and shifting your focus from the future in the outside world to the now in your personal world.

Above are three sports that have helped me more than I can tell you. The combination of the physical, mental and emotional benefits beat any pill or any diet, and now that I feel I have achieved the perfect balance of exercise, nutrition and rest, I have never been so happy.

Everyone’s go-to sport for relaxation will be different – some will find this with weights, others with running (runners high is a real thing) and still others walking round a park. The trick is to find what does it for you and do that.

I really hope you have found this article useful – I feel so lucky to have been able to find so many sports that I love throughout my life, and now want to spend time spreading the word about the benefits of sport and exercise. You don’t have to be depressed or have a diagnosed conditions to feel the benefits. They’re there for all of us. What does exercise do for you?

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Further reading:

If you struggle with depression this is pretty helpful (it’s the little steps that make all the difference!)

This goes into some depth about benefits for sufferers of OCD

See infographic below for some more benefits for everyone!

“Studies conducted on mice have shown that exercising on a running wheel helps them sprout new connections between neurons in their brains. Exercise may cause the release of “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections. These new connections may help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, “feel good” neurochemicals, boosting mood and fending off stress.”

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Chocolate chips oat cookies

This recipe is so simple and quick, I dare you to get it wrong. This is cooking at its simplest, but yields the softest, most satisfying oat cookies you could hope for. The dates provide little morsels of sweetness among the bitter dark chocolate and carby oats, and miraculously the entire mixture is filled with goodness (it definitely doesn’t taste like it)!

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Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 50ml almond milk
  • 4 tbsp almond or peanut butter
  • 100g oats
  • 75g wholemeal flour
  • 50g muscovado/demerara sugar
  • 25g vanilla/chocolate/peanut protein
  • 4 dates, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 50 dark chocolate, finely sliced

 

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and line a baking tray with baking parchment
  • Melt the coconut oil and whisk in the almond milk and nut butter.
  • Mix together the oats, flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, chopped dates and protein
  • Combine wet and dry ingredients in a large bowl before stirring in the chocolate pieces
  • Lump into balls and flatten partially onto the tray. This mixture should make 12-15 cookies.
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the tops of the cookies are firm to touch
  • Enjoy!

 

* * I used vanilla pea protein in this recipe. You can use whatever protein you like, but bear in mind that whey may not require so much added liquid so add the milk slowly.

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Healthy quorn cottage pie

Recipes that will feed you all week, or feed an entire dinner party without a fuss are definitely some of my favourites. Coming home from work, sometimes all you want is something that you can shove in the microwave or oven and eat, and sadly the number of healthy options are limited. This cottage pie packs in 5 vegetables (although you can add as many as you like), protein and hella flavour, all for next to no money per portion and less than an hour spent in the kitchen.

I am all for sustainability, and sadly eating meat is one of those things that, for me, cannot be justified no matter how good it tastes (I actually don’t like meat at all, but know that lots of people do). This recipe works for anyone who enjoys meat but also wants to reduce consumption. Quorn is an amazing substitute for meat that is very high in protein, low in fat and has a much lower carbon footprint than any meat. Read my reasons for being pescetarian. Either way, this dish is easy, delicious and super healthy – definitely one for your weekly meal prep!

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Use seasonal and local vegetables where possible – read why

Ingredients:

  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • 1 large red onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 large courgette
  • 1 pepper
  • Vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 300g quorn (I get mine frozen)
  • Turmeric, chilli, salt, pepper
  • 30g cheese (optional – for a vegan option omit or use vegan cheese)

Method:

  • Boil the kettle and preheat the oven to 180 degrees C
  • Scrub the sweet potatoes and chop into small chunks to boil (I don’t peel them but if you’d rather do that feel free – leaving them as is increases the fibre content)
  • Finely chop the onion and fry with some olive oil and the garlic clove
  • Finely chop the carrot, courgette and pepper and add to the mix, stirring until soft and browning
  • Drain the sweet potatoes once soft, saving 200ml of the water
  • Add the quorn mince to the vegetables
  • Use one stock cube, stir into the hot water, add the soy sauce and pour over the vegetables and quorn
  • Leave to simmer for 10 minutes (or less if the quorn is not frozen)
  • Pour the veg into a large dish
  • Mash the potatoes, adding the spices and salt and pepper
  • Top the vegetables with the mashed potato and sprinkle over the grated cheese, if using
  • Cook for 25 minutes in the oven, until browning at the top
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Before being cooked

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The final product. Enjoy!

Protein cookie dough

When you just want something that tastes unhealthy, looks unhealthy and is just the right amount of decadent, this one is for you.

It needs no more introduction: peanut-butter protein cookie dough

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Ingredients:

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 50g peanut flour
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein
  • 100g honey
  • 100g peanut butter
  • 60g 70% (or more) dark chocolate (chips or finely chopped)

Method:

  • Pour all the ingredients except for the chocolate in a blender
  • Start slowly and then increase blending speed to mix
  • If you would like peanut butter swirls add the peanut butter at the end and blend slowly, or hand mix in
  • Fold the chocolate pieces into the mix
  • Refrigerate

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Blackberry protein sponge

This cake uses some strange ingredients that you might not usually associate with cakes, but once you taste it you’ll see why! The chickpea keeps the cake moist without becoming dense and the blackberries give it a pleasant tang that stops it being too sweet or bland.

If you are vegan, the whole cake can be made vegan by using egg substitute and vegan protein (although be aware – vegan protein absorbs more liquid, so you may need to add a splash of water or almond milk). As it is, this cake packs in a huge amount of protein and important fibre so definitely constitutes a very healthy treat.

You can make this into one large loaf using a loaf tin or alternatively you can make 2 small round cakes, which you can stack together like a Victoria sponge cake. I use cashew cream and homemade blackberry jam for the filling.

I would 100% recommend you pick your own blackberries for this – not only is that free but also they taste amaaaaazing and you get the gratification of working for your dessert. Now is the season and they’re everywhere so have a forage!

Macros (cake only): 270cals, F: 12g, C: 24.2, P: 15.5

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Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 100ml honey (may need less with sweeter protein powder)
  • 50ml vegetable oil
  • 100ml almond milk
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 100g vanilla/unflavoured protein
  • 100g self-raising wholemeal/white flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 150g – 200g blackberries

Method:

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160 fan)
  • Blend together all the liquid ingredients with the chickpeas until smooth (a couple of minutes)
  • In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients to blend
  • Fold in the dry ingredients into the chickpea liquid mix
  • Add half the blackberries and mix (it should be easy
  • Pour into a deep greased tin, preferably with a removable base (or two shallow round tins for filled sponge) and place the remaining blackberries on top
  • Cook for 35-40 minutes if in shallow tins or 45 minutes if in loaf tin. Check with cake prodder to see if it comes out clean. This may take an hour to cook in a deep tin
  • Remove from the oven; keep in tin and let cool on wire rack. Remove from tin when cooler and leave to cool further on the rack. Do not cut until at room temperature.
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If you sandwich the cakes you should level off the lower one using a bread knife

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Spread on the jam and cashew cream thickly, leaving some space at the edges

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Sandwich and enjoy!

Chocolate protein truffles

This recipe is a staple that should always be found in your fridge if you’re into fitness or love chocolate. The only problem is, as soon as you make them, they’re basically gone straight away, especially if you have sisters! But at around 30 calories a bite, you can make a few batches and not feel terrible if you eat them all (been there, done that, no regrets).

Per ball – P: 4.1g, C: 0.6g F: 1.4g, 30 calories

Ingredients:

  • 120g protein powder of choice*
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 50g ground almonds **
  • 150-200ml almond milk
  • Honey/agave/maple syrup (optional, to taste)

* I use nutristrength chocolate whey isolate. You can use vegan protein but you may have to use more milk. Salted caramel and various other proteins work really well here too! Experiment and let me know what you come up with.

** If you like peanuts, peanut flour created smores truffles – SO GOOD

Method:

  • Mix the dry ingredients together make sure they are well blended.
  • Add the milk slowly, mixing as you go. I usually use around 170ml with whey protein. You may not need the full 200ml
  • Add the honey/sweetener at this point and mix in
  • You should get to the consistence where it is extremely hard to mix but not dry.
  • Wet your hands and grab small (walnut sized) balls of mixture and roll into a ball (the mixture, not you)
  • Pour cocoa powder onto a chopping board/flat surface. Roll the ball in it using your palm.
  • Store in the fridge (best when eaten cold).

Enjoy!

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