I once lived a life almost ruled by anxiety, intrusive thoughts and paralysing fear. I spent years looking for the thing that would release me, and when I finally found it, it wasn't medication or therapy (although both helped). It was running. It gave me a feeling that there was a world out there beckoning me, promising hope; it gave me independence and the sense that I had reserves of strength that I wasn't aware of.
There are many reasons that physical activity is said to help mental health - it boosts mood, relieves stress and improves sleep. I also find that cardio exercise can use up some of the adrenaline caused by anxiety. My panic attacks stopped, intrusive thoughts lessened and a looming sense of doom was pushed back.
Although the stigma that sticks to mental illness has faded in recent years, the services set up to provide assistance are still stretched and underfunded. With the caveat that exercise alone can't cure mental health problems, or even make life easier for those living with more severe illness, it can be a revelation.
A recent study published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal supported the theory that physical activity is an effective prevention strategy for depression. (Although it adds that 'physical activity may protect against depression, and/or depression may result in decreased physical activity'.)
In a 2018 survey, only 23 per cent of respondents in the UAE said that they exercised on a regular basis, compared to 29 per cent in 2017. This is mainly due to long working hours and a sedentary working environment, they said. This may reflect the fact that many people still see exercise as a chore. Although our perception of exercise is formed in childhood, 2017 statistics from Public Health England found that, by the final year of primary school, just 17 per cent of children were doing the recommended amount of daily exercise.
In adulthood, exercise is often the first thing to be sacrificed, with the excuse of too little time or money; and there is quite often a narrative that we are 'just not very good at it'. In the modern world, other interests are competing for our attention.
Dr Sarah Vohra, a consultant psychiatrist and author, says she sees a common trend in many of her patients. 'I see plenty of young people who have been referred with mild depression or anxiety symptoms, and when you unpack what they are doing day-to-day, the answer is very little ... Time in the great outdoors has been replaced with time behind a screen, and real-life relationships replaced with virtual ones.'
This increasing time spent online may contribute to a tendency to see the brain as an abstract entity, disconnected from the body. In his book, How to Think About Exercise, Damon Young writes that we often see 'physical and mental exertion as somehow in conflict. Not because there is too little time or energy, but because existence is seemingly split in two.' He goes on: 'Exercise is a chance to educate our bodies and minds at once.'
Instead, she suggests, outcomes seem to be much better in 'groups of people who have started exercising with their friends, starting running clubs or going on cycling weekends, and I think that's because naturally these overcome more barriers. Ideally, I think we need to be able to replicate these kinds of conditions in organised and funded schemes, which could then be prescribed.'
'When you achieve something that your internal narrative told you was physically and mentally impossible, it forces you to challenge your perception of self.'I still don't fully understand why lacing up my trainers and getting out there holds back my previously debilitating anxiety, but I don't think I'm overdoing it when I say running gave me my life back. And nobody was more surprised than I was.
Bella Mackie is the author of Jog On
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