4 minute read
Since I was young I’ve had heaps of energy, I was a hyperactive child who found it hard to sit still. Challenges at school lead me to worry, about nothing in particular, just an omnipresent, constant unease. As a teenager I would play sport on a Saturday and the worry would ease and dissipate as I found myself totally present and content - temporarily free from my worries. It was my portal into what today we’d call a ‘mindful mindset’. This feeling would linger into my shower, my journey home and my evening.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of the direct influence exercise was having on my mood and so I didn’t structure exercise into my diary like I do today. Consequently, I continued to struggle with anxiety and would catastrophise over the smallest of issues. It wasn’t until I noticed the affect a sedentary lifestyle teamed with a junk food diet had on my mind, let alone my body. Jump forward to today and I have the same problem when I don’t exercise and drink too much caffeine. The remedy is as simple as putting my running trainers on and making my way to the nearest hill for some incline sprints; the tension and energy that is screaming to be released, set free. Afterwards, the effect of the physical movement is undeniable; my body finds a state of deep relaxation which has a direct effect on my mind - now at ease. I truly believe that moving the body can clear the cobwebs of the mind, whether it is yoga, a game of squash, a stroll after dinner or simply a walk around the garden (preferably barefoot) before bed.
Sometimes I find that the workouts after a particularly stressful day at work are the ones in which I really push my body, and consequently create a full 180 turnaround in my mindset, compared to just forty-five minutes earlier. There are many studies that support the theory that physical exercise can boost mental wellbeing, including a recent study* that found exercise improves quality of life and has the power to improve our mood.
I now use exercise to combat stress and anxiety. Something that the six friends that join me each morning at 6am in the gym, before heading off to Central London for work also admit to. It is an hour carved out of our day where we can be mindful. We turn our phones off, get the heart pumping and set ourselves up for a balanced day. If some anxiety manages to sneak in, which it often does, then I’ll choose to walk or cycle home and “clear those cobwebs”.
So clearly, exercise has a positive effect on our mental wellbeing. But there’s also research to show that our mental health has a positive effect on our physical wellbeing too, and in a way which you might not have thought. We’re used to hearing that positivity is the key to happiness, and positive psychology has its place, but when it comes to our mental health, it’s natural and human to feel a range of emotions - both happy and sad, and feeling the full emotional spectrum is completely normal. In fact, a recent study found that those of us who experience both positive and negative emotions, as opposed to just one type or the other, tend to have better physical health over time*. Having a balanced emotional experience in your mind can help you have a healthier body.
We live in a society that can put pressure on us to feel happy all of the time, but a saying that keeps me balanced is "it’s okay not to be okay". And when we do feel down or agitated, it’s wonderful to have some ammunition in our arsenal (exercise) to combat this.
Double Olympic champion and Arctic rower Alex Gregory tells me “the great thing about the boat for me is the concept of ‘pushing away from land’ you’re physically separating yourself from troubles and problems, stresses and forcing a break from normality, as well as getting the benefit of exercise.”
Exercise has a clear impact on our bodies aesthetically and in terms of physical health, but in a time when we are becoming more conscious of our emotions and mental health, it can be beneficial to understand that exercise can alleviate emotional suffering, while at the same time, an ability to be mindful; to accept that we experience life on an emotional spectrum, and know that sometimes, “not being okay”, is good for our physical health too.
Lead Photograph: Calle Stoltz for Lexington
*Penedo & Dahn, (2005), Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry
*Hershfield, Scheibe, Sims & Carstensen, (2013). When Feeling Bad Can Be Good: Mixed Emotions Benefit Physical Health Across Adulthood. Social psychological and personality science