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.
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.
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,”
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?
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.”