Reflections on the benefits of exercise and psychological well-being
In a time of stress and juggling multiple demands whilst writing our theses, a few of us third year Leicester Trainee Clinical Psychologists have reflected on our experience of the benefits of physical exercise in supporting our own wellbeing. We feel that our anecdotal evidence has shown the benefits of being active, for example in sustaining the motivation and concentration required to undertake our doctoral projects. Physical pursuits have included hiking, running, cycling and gym classes and for us these are all culminating in taking part in a national event called Tough Mudder (more on that later!). These activities have injected some balance into what could have had the potential to be a time of very narrow focus for us and they have been an invaluable source of stress relief.
Many people have questioned why we would not prefer to sit at home and relax or socialize with friends as a way of relieving stress, and giving the left side of our brains a break from this intense work period (we do of course do that too!). Being fairly fit and healthy individuals, we have all had personal experience of taking part in exercise/physical activity and reaping the rewards both physically and mentally. The post-workout buzz and social benefits are perhaps for us the most rewarding parts of this current challenge. This made us think about what we know about mental health and the benefits of physical activity…
In our clinical work focusing on promoting exercise/physical activity and supporting individuals to get out and about, is possibly neglected at the expense of focusing on the core underlying difficulties within our client’s psychological worlds. Without invalidating the role of the latter, in our recent challenges, we were reminded of Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, which points to our basic physiological needs (i.e. being fit and healthy), as being one of the fundamental building blocks to our overall psychological wellbeing.
Physical exercise has been linked to a number of positive mental health outcomes including: reductions in depression; anxiety; and improved cognitive functioning (Callaghan, 2004). Of course, many factors will be at play including the rush of endorphins throughout the body, the impact of feeling connected to others and associated health benefits, including weight loss. More generally, exercise has been linked to brain health. Exercise can improve brain plasticity, even in elderly populations and can reduce risk factors for a number of age-related diseases (Cotman et al., 2007). There are also cognitive benefits; exercise quite literally has been evidenced to ‘jog’ our memories!
Furthermore, the benefits of taking part in group activities such as themed races extend to the comradery and idea of ‘being in it together’. The key message conveyed by the Tough Mudder organisers is one of team work and support; it is about crossing the finish line together, not who gets there first. In challenging times, the benefits of social support have been shown to help those with mental health difficulties combat isolation (Anderson et al., 2015) and improve psychological well-being (Cohen, 2004; Kawachi & Berkman, 2001). There continues to be an air of stigmatisation surrounding mental health which is likely to compound the loneliness that one feels (Oliveira et al., 2015). Having the opportunity to connect with others in a similar situation is invaluable; even more so in sports activities where there is a common goal or target to collectively reach.
Drawing on the support of others to work towards that finish line, whatever that may look like, can only serve to build companionship and togetherness. This echoes our experiences, as we have found that the process of immersing oneself in a research project can be quite isolating. Through the experience of various physical activities we have been able to connect with others, have a sense of purpose and improved self-efficacy. I’m sure you would agree that the latter is of great value, particularly during times when it may feel like other parts of life are being neglected.
Despite the evidenced benefits of exercise and our own personal experience of the positives of being physically active, the UK is reported to be the third most inactive population in Europe, with two thirds of adults failing to take part in enough physical activity to maintain good health (Heath et al., 2012). It is not then surprising that physical exercise is a neglected area within mental health work (Callaghan, 2004), given our national reputation for being fairly sedentary and sloth-like.
All is not lost… The Millennial generation of today (those born in the 1980s and onwards) are showing increasing interest in a range of new fitness trends. Being native to the new ‘digital instant satisfaction’ mentality of the world we live in, us 1980s babies have grown up in a society that craves instant feedback, satisfaction and reward. Knight et al. (2015) have suggested that millennials are perfect examples of experiential learning theory i.e. learning through direct experience. Outdoor recreation is one such example, where individuals learn through practical experience and gain direct feedback about how they have performed. Themed races such as Colour, Tough Mudder and Zombie runs are becoming more popular, particularly with younger generations (Knight et al., 2015). Lorraine and Meghan took part in the Derby Colour run around the grounds of Chatsworth house earlier this year. The ethos of the day was not about competition but about taking part, and most importantly getting the most amount of dye thrown on you as possible! This was followed by a ‘dye party’ where even more colour was spread and everyone joined in together to create an atmosphere of achievement, triumph, freedom and fun!
As we mentioned earlier, we are currently training and preparing to get very muddy, as we have entered Tough Mudder 2016! We wanted to acknowledge how exercise has helped us through the DClin Psy course by setting up a fundraising page for the Get Set To Go initiative set up by the charity MIND. Get Set To Go aims to promote exercise for individuals with mental health difficulties. The aim is to find the right activity so individuals experience not only the physical but the mental and social benefits of sport. The Get Set To Go initiative started in 2015 and is currently supporting individuals in eight different locations across the UK. We have all found an enormous benefit from staying active and wanted to support the Get Set To Go initiative, to help others experience the same. If you feel you would like to donate please follow the link:
Lastly, we wanted to spread these ideas and would welcome comments and personal reflections from others, about times when being physically active has helped in supporting individuals through challenging or demanding times.
‘Run when you can, crawl if you must: just never give up’ Dean Karnazes
Andrew, Laura, Lorraine and Meghan
(Third Year Trainee Clinical Psychologists)