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Exercise for better mental health?

Let me start by saying that I recognise that not everyone wants to do exercise, and also that not everyone is able to get out and exercise – whether because they are too anxious to go out, or because they can’t physically do so. I respect you for that and I will try and offer something for you in a future blog. This blog is really for those people who could do some exercise, but don’t, who need motivation, who aren’t sure how to start, don’t think its possible but might like to try…

To start with, let’s take a brief look at the known benefits of exercise, described by Taylor, Sallis & Needle (1985):

  • The strongest evidence suggests that physical activity and exercise probably alleviate some symptoms associated with mild to moderate depression

  • There is beneficial assistance for alcoholism and substance abuse programs

  • It can lead to improved self-image or self-esteem, social skills, and cognitive functioning

  • It can help reduce symptoms of anxiety

A more recent review by Penedo & Dahn (2005) evaluated the relationship between exercise, physical activity and physical and mental health. A whole variety of research methods and groups of people were reviewed and particular attention was given to physical conditions, including obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and sexual dysfunction. Also, studies relating physical activity to depression and other mood states were reviewed. In short, most work suggests that exercise and physical activity are associated with better quality of life and health outcomes.

So the evidence definitely points to the fact that exercise is good for you!

I’m going to talk about running, but of course running isn’t for everyone, so I encourage you to think of the exercise of your choice – cycling, walking, swimming, kayaking, line dancing… Guernsey has lots of possibilities for exercise, lots of clubs and groups – and they don’t need to cost lots of money. Check out social media for ideas.

Ok, maybe you get the drift, but how do you get started? Small steps (pun intended); firstly, I would suggest checking in with yourself – if you have negative thoughts about getting started then challenge those thoughts – “I can’t do this”, “why not? I haven’t even tried yet” “It will get easier..”. If you are anxious about going out then perhaps start at dusk or night time if that’s easier – but take a torch or bike light, or maybe go first thing in the morning? Challenging your mindset can be a hard place to start, but the rewards are worth it! Let’s get a reality check – take a look at the people entering park runs, or a local fun-run – are they all perfect athletes? No I know they aren’t because I enter some of them and I’m not perfect lol. It’s just people enjoying sharing some exercise and getting a buzz from doing it.

But how? Well there are lots of introductory fitness programs available on the web – ‘Couch to 5k’ is a popular starting point, there are lots of plans if you google couch to 5k - they involve combining walking with running and over time the running increases and the walking reduces. If not running then there are other similar alternatives for cycling etc.. Find a group – share the experience – usually there are small groups that go out, so if you are uncomfortable in large groups this might be easier. Other examples could include Donkey Linedance, Irish dance, Canoe Club, Stand Up Paddleboarding, ...

The thing is, exercise doesn’t have to be about winning or going really fast (that’s lucky because I’m not remotely fast!) but it is about getting out, working the lungs, enjoying nature – oh and a whole bunch of endorphin-release happens at the same time!

Here’s another benefit to exercise – for anyone who suffers with negative habits or addictive behaviours, if you are aware of the behaviour then managing that behaviour by distraction can help reduce it (if you want to kick a habit or behaviour, get in touch - we can work on this together to find a solution that works for you). When the feelings come along, instead of acting on them you kick on your running shoes and get 5k under your feet, get back tired, energised (or exhausted!) and in a different mood, having avoided that ‘old’ behaviour. Easy to say but harder to do, sure, but its about taking small steps remember – change can happen.

So whether its C25k or a longer run like an 'ultramarathon' across a mountain, exercise can bring positive change to your mental health, it doesn’t need to cost a lot and can be hugely rewarding. Check out the Investec Mind Guernsey fun run– ALL ABILITIES WELCOME!

Finally, here is a bit of poetry combined in a video – written by an ultra-runner (an ultramarathon is any run longer than a marathon and some are over a hundred miles!) which talks about the highs and lows, thoughts and feelings that exercise can bring – and the black dog (depression) waiting at the door. The way that running gives you time to distract, process, reflect or just step out of the ordinary and mundane: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain”:

Video by Tegyn Angel - 'Wildplans'.


Taylor, C. B., Sallis, J. F., & Needle, R. (1985). The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public Health Reports, 100(2), 195–202.

Penedo & Dahn (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18(2), pp.189-193.

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