Exercise is great for boosting our happiness hormones, but what if the dark cloud of mental illness prevents us from stepping outside?
If we were to ask any typical runner what the most taxing part of their morning jog was, we’re pretty sure they’d all respond with the same sentiment – conjuring the energy to jump out of bed was far more challenging than the exercise itself. The hurdle of stepping out the door gets harder and harder to reach when factors such as depression and anxiety are thrown into the mix. We’re often fed advice about how exercise is invaluable when it comes to our wellbeing, but it’s vital to address the fact that being active is difficult when such disorders are weighing you down, especially on days when your duvet is a safety blanket you can’t bear to part with. We’ve devised some tips for braving the obligatory ‘get those happy hormones pumping’ workout, for those who may find it a little more tricky than others. We’ve got some refreshing advice from an assortment of fitness experts and mental health advocates on how to get the most out of exercise for the agility and stability of our delicate minds.
“Nobody is looking at you. I know you won’t believe me initially, but it’s true,” promises Bella Mackie, author of Jog On (£12.99, William Collins). “You might worry about this if you suffer from social anxiety, and I completely understand the fear. Running feels incredibly exposing, overwhelming and scary to begin with. I ran in the dark, and stopped whenever I saw someone coming towards me. I didn’t wear leggings for months, preferring to cover up with baggy sweats. I’ve thought long and hard about what I was most scared of back then, and aside from panicking in an unfamiliar place, my main worry was being laughed at by strangers. I assumed people would mock me as I shuffled past them, point and make comments, realise that I was a total beginner, honk from vans. This is a common worry – especially for women, who also have to prepare for sexist comments while exercising. But nobody batted an eyelid. So much so, that once I fell over at the feet of a man on the canal path and he just carried on eating his sandwich. Honestly, people genuinely aren’t bothered by the fact that you’re on a run.”
Swimming is considered the ultimate physical (joint-friendly) and psychologically stress-busting sport. According to a recent study, 92 percent of swimmers surveyed claimed that swimming is a great cure for their stress (nabaiji.co.uk). The reasons for this are crystal clear. Firstly, because of its repetitive nature – gliding through the pool produces a feeling of ‘letting go’, through which you can press the pause button on your daily hassles for a while. Secondly, general wellbeing in an aquatic environment, heightened by the hormones released during exercise, is mostly created by the soothing properties of water. The sensation of lightness, weightlessness, massage and awareness of the body triggered by being submerged allows you to eliminate physical tensions, contractions and pain, while experiencing physical and psychological relaxation. When you swim in the evening, the effort will bring about a healthy fatigue. It isn’t breaking news that a good night’s sleep is invaluable when it comes to nourishing your mind and general happiness. For those of you afraid to take a dip as a result of issues with body confidence and feeling exposed, or if you’re prone to feelings of social anxiety, it’s best to visit the pool early in the morning before work, or at quieter times. If you speak to reception at your local swimming centre they should be able to discuss peak times with you, and advise you about when’s best to go to perfect your breast stroke in peace.
“Aside from the obvious physiological benefits, such as better lung and heart functionality, strengthened bones and increased muscle form, cycling can be a supremely effective agent in maintaining mental health,” explains Mark Brown, business development director at Evans Cycles (evanscycles.com). “Aerobic exercise like cycling reduces stress and anxiety, increases selfesteem and can also help combat depression through the regulation of cortisol and natural release of endorphins in your brain. For many people, cycling also offers an unparalleled sense of freedom. Be that through a child gaining their first taste of independence and exploration, or someone who might otherwise be put off cycling, but is able to utilise modern developments in exercise biking technology to regain fitness or a sense of self-reliance. In addition to this, it can also help promote mindfulness by focusing your brain on the present moment instead of juggling a multitude of thoughts. The psychological effects of cycling are also somewhat heightened in the fresh air of the great outdoors. Whether you’re a leisure rider, commuter, mountain-biker, tourer or a complete beginner, it’s important to believe in the mental benefits of pedal power.” If anxiety is something that you suffer with, then why not try to improve your fitness and form first on an indoor bike? Cycling around housing estates and quieter roads is a good idea for those prone to panic, before embarking on journeys where busy roads are your only option. Don’t cycle too far from home at first – build your confidence and, better still, take a friend or family member. A more experienced cyclist may provide the supportive lead you need to get the most out of your time on the bike path.