The mental health benefits of sport
What do Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, cricketer Andrew Flintoff and tennis star Serena Williams all have in common? Apart from reaching the very top of their sport, they are among a number of stars to have spoken about their battles with mental illness.
They have helped to diminish the stigma surrounding mental health, which will affect one in four of us at some point in our lives, and shone the spotlight on how sport can help people to cope or recover.
Mental health conditions, from anxiety and depression to addiction and eating disorders, do not discriminate – they don’t care what age you are or if you are rich, poor, successful, married or single. But sport and physical activity is increasingly being seen as an important intervention to address such issues.
Studies have shown that getting active can boost your mood, reduce levels of stress, improve your self-esteem and help you get a better night’s sleep. Sport and physical activity can also enhance your physical health, promote healthy weight loss and reduce your alcohol intake.
Other research has shown that exercise is as effective as medication in treating depression as it can provide a positive focus and sense of purpose and encourages you to meet new people.
I see sport – in my case running – as a way to give myself a natural energy boost to better cope with whatever life throws at me. It gives me space.
The aim for better health is to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week but taking small steps towards this goal is the way to go; it’s important to build up slowly at a pace that suits you.
And being more active doesn’t necessarily mean doing something overtly sporty either. A walk, gardening or dancing are all physical activities and count.
Feeling low makes it harder to get up and go of course but while there are plenty of barriers that can stop us being active, there are ways to overcome them and keep it going, too. To start with you have to learn how to work with your moods and build time into your day.
To keep costs down you can ask your GP about exercise on prescription or find activities that you can do for free such as Parkrun, Walking for Health or a green gym.
To get started you could ask someone you trust to help you or find a beginners’ class or a women- or men-only session so you won’t feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.
Setting realistic goals and rewarding yourself as you meet them can help and so can technology. If you have a smart phone there are lots of apps that can help motivate you while even a simple clip-on pedometer can encourage you to work towards the recommended 10,000 steps a day.