July 22, 2018 6 min read

Someone once asked me what I thought ‘strong’ meant...

It used to just make me think of those big muscle men pulling trucks on the telly - like Eddie Hall and Jeff Capes, but since experiencing mental health challenges I have learnt a different meaning for the word. I now know that this one word ’strong’ can refer to both physical and mental strength. 

I had always though of myself as a reasonably fit person...

but the truth was I hadn’t really done much real exercise since childhood. Growing up through my teens I shied away from physical activity and then with adulthood came mental health problems. They began with severe Post-Natal Depression and carried on for many years before I took any real steps to make myself better. I suffered with several issues, but anxiety and depression were the ringleaders and this made it very difficult to be motivated to do much at all - and especially anything new. Not feeling strong either physically or mentally, and the resulting desire to improve things got me to thinking about how much I missed the buzz of being physically active.

At the age of 23 I joined my first gym...

I was super scared as I had no idea what I was doing. Everyone looked so involved in their super cool sports gear - and then there was me. But I persevered with it, in part because my doctor had suggested that it could actually help my mental health problems long term. I didn’t quite understand how that could be possible but at this point I was willing to try anything because I just wanted to get back to who I was when I was my younger self. 

So on I went, pretending I knew how to use the machines, mainly sitting on the bike as that was all I felt comfortable doing… and then I joined a body pump class. At first this was knackering for me as someone who hadn’t done any real exercise in years, however, afterwards I felt awesome. I had accomplished my first class and didn’t completely fail! And so it went on right up to now where I train almost daily. I have found it has definitely helped my mental health, and more so than many of the other therapies I have tried. Each time I conquer a class I feel I have achieved something, and that has made me feel stronger everyday.

1 in 4 adults in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year...

Whilst it is important to point out that seeking help from a doctor is the first port of call when it comes to any health problem (whether physical or mental) a personal approach to building positive mental wellbeing is definitely worth considering.

Most of us take part in exercise as a way to keep our bodies healthy (and to allow us to eat a bit more of the stuff we fancy). However many of us neglect to think of exercise as a way of keeping better mental health. I myself have learnt that exercise has had a massive effect on my mental health, maybe more so than the physical. 

There have been many articles and academic papers written around the topic of mental health and the benefits of exercise (I won’t bore you with the full details now but the links are at the bottom if you are interested in reading further).

The UK Government suggests 75-150 minutes per week as the recommended time an adult should spend exercising...

Exercise includes anything that involves raising your heart rate: running, hiking, swimming, weight training, football, surfing, CrossFit, yoga and more. This could be broken down in to 5 x fifteen minute to half-hour sessions per week to meet government guidelines. This is easily doable if we think of how much time we might sit and watch tv or scroll through our phones (I am certainly guilty of this). Getting active would be a much more beneficial activity for the body and mind. 

I now take part in CrossFit at CrossFit Iron Duke in Waterlooville...

This is an awesome sport to be a part of but it also has a real sense of community. Those around you are not your competition, but your team mates. I have found that this has lifted my mental wellbeing drastically, with everyone being so supportive it makes me feel part of a family. Since joining the CrossFit community I have also made some incredible friends. This kind of involvement is so important in building healthier mental health - and you could do the same at your local gym classes or a yoga class.  

If you’re not comfortable with working or training alongside others, it doesn’t mean that sport or exercise can’t have a benefit, it just means that the act of physical activity is the key. Sometimes I find that sticking my headphones in and getting on with it can really help, just as much as as training as part of a team. Sometimes some ‘alone time’ whilst running can be really therapeutic (and that’s saying something because I really hate running!). 

Physical activity benefits mental health because of the chemical changes which occur in the brain during exercise...

Endorphins are released during and after your heart rate is increased and this triggers a sense of accomplishment. This is the same whether you’re working out with a team, group of friends or by yourself. That all-important positive sense of  achievement will still exist. 

If it’s the case that even when you have free time, you’re unable to leave the house because of the kids, you could give yourself fifteen to thirty minutes in the evening after they’re in bed and do a mini workout. If you Google (source of all knowledge) ‘at home workouts’ many are listed and there are some great options on the NHS website too. This will allow you to exercise yourself to better health, physically and mentally… and it’s free.  

Exercise can be viewed as something we have to do as its good for our body, but the benefits of exercise do truly extend to our mental health and wellbeing.

Instead of thinking of exercise and healthy living as something we have to do, we should think of it as something we want to do - so the key is finding a form of exercise you can enjoy (let’s face it, there are enough to choose from). The feeling of pushing physical boundaries and keeping a healthy body  can really result in better mental health and it extends further than just making us feel happy. For example, it can boost your self-esteem, lower stress levels, boost mood or stabilise mood, alleviate current anxiety, and much more. 

Exercise has been proven to reduce, and in some cases resolve, mild to moderate depression. It can be as effective as medication for some, and can reduce or alleviate the need for drugs. How cool is it that we can just go for a run and potentially feel so much better both physically and mentally? Not only is the exercise good for you, but taking part in exercise can take you out of a challenging mental health situation and allow for self-growth and achievement. 

There is no particular exercise that is best for Mental Health benefit. All exercise has positive effect when it comes to mental wellbeing.

There are many options which you could consider if you’re looking to give your mental health a positive boost through physical activity: 

Couch to 5K, Join your local gym for classes, Join a local running club, Join your local CrossFit Box, Start swimming in your free time at your local leisure centre, Join a local yoga class - and that’s just for starters. 

There are many options that could cost you nothing:

Walking, At home workouts, Cycling (go, on - dust off that bike… or borrow one!) Running, Hiking, Park football, Skipping, Free gym passes. If you just get moving that counts - as soon as your heart rate starts rising, you’ll notice the benefits. 

For further support on mental health conditions, visit your local GP surgery or look at related websites with information and contacts such as: www.onceuponatimeuk.co.uk



If we can make ourselves feel better with something as simple as exercise then why not give it a go?

Lucy x

(Big Crocodile’s guru of all things creative)

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