It’s been a couple of weeks since the #KiliCrew have written on the subject of mental health, and during that time we’ve been busy trying to get into shape to climb Kilimanjaro. During this long (and painful!) process I began thinking about how closely related physical activity is to a person’s mental health, both for good and bad reasons. As such, I thought I’d try my hand at debunking the myth surrounding the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing.
We often hear that physical activity is a great antidote for those of us who suffer with
mental health issues, or even simply to push back against stress and overwork. While this is true, it is unfortunately circulated for the wrong reasons most of the time. We frequently
hear and read on social media that the secret to finding your answers to mental health
issues is to become a gym-rat or a marathon runner. That sort of message actually does
more harm than good. It tells all of us that happiness is accessible only to some – to those
who have the time, desire, motivation, or even the ability to lead that kind of lifestyle.
What’s more, it simplifies incredibly complicated health conditions to a simple thought that
we’re too out of shape to be happy.
We need to push back against this misunderstanding so that we don’t lose the true value of
physical movement to our mental wellbeing. Take for example, Jake Tyler, who appeared on last year’s BBC series ‘Mind Over Marathon’ raising awareness for mental health. He
recently walked across the United Kingdom over a 13 month span and has written about
what he learned. Here are two stand out points that, in my mind, should be at the centre of
our thoughts surrounding physical health and mental health:
There’s an effortless simplicity to nature. Mountains, fields, cliffs, sea. It has sat calmly and
peacefully amid the thousands of years of chaos we humans have created for ourselves. It’s easy to start thinking that the world’s a terrible place when everything within our bubble gets on top of us, but reconnecting with our natural surroundings doesn’t just calm us down; it’s a reminder that our world’s a pretty incredible place, and well worth taking a walk through.
Before I began my challenge, I suffered a major depressive episode. Those of you who are
reading this and have experienced depression will understand that the concept of ‘control’
gets a little frayed or, in some cases, disappears altogether. When YOU decide that you need to get outside, even if it’s just to walk down to the end of the road, that brings the control back to you. You can build from there.
There is also a lot to be said for the changes physical movement makes to our internal body chemistry. Jake Tyler’s article mentions how exercise acts as a serotonin booster, and, for an in depth study on how movement can help us manage mental health challenges, Stephen Illardi presented a truly informative and engaging TedTalk on the subject. He discusses how members of the Kaluli people in Papua New Guinea have a much lower rate of clinical depression as opposed to Western/modern societies. The argument here is that our sedentary lifestyles (often characterised by long hours at an office desk) act as an obstacle to the chemical balances and experiences we need in order to maintain a healthy balance. As part of the wide and complex array of strategies to manage mental illnesses like depression, a simple walk around the block can go a long way.
So, when we think about how our physical wellbeing relates to how our mind works, let’s be clear on what it is we should really be focusing on. When we feel stressed, down, or anxious, the answer is not to get fitter, to drop a clothing size or two, or to go on a fat burning binge. These are not pressures that somehow turn into happiness when they are chased, and if pursued for the wrong reasons rather than their independent benefit they can fuel our insecurities when things don’t go to plan. Rather, let’s move for the inherent value of moving, for the social, chemical and psychological benefits that it gives us. Physical activity is not the magic bullet, but it is a great ally in the fight against mental health – let’s ensure that we do not link this tool to our insecurities, undue pressures and unrealistic goals in the gym.