Moving for our Mental Health

I’ve heard several of my friends say: “I do this for my mental health.” or, “Oh my god, this is my therapy.” and, “Tuesday is my mental health date with myself.” They aren’t talking about counselling, group therapy, or even meditation – they’re talking about riding their bikes. Like many people, I belong to an organized athletic club, a bike club. We are part serious, part fitness, part social, and full-on fun. We meet every week, sometimes twice, for a ride and après ride activities (beer and wings). We don’t need someone to tell us this is good for our health because we are experiencing the effects each week, feeling the improvement in our fitness and cycling speed, but just as importantly, noticing the feelings of well being and belonging that come from doing this together. Joining a walking club, cycling club, lifting club, or swim club, is about the best thing we can do for whole health: our bodies, our spirits and our minds. Increasingly the science showing that physical, mental, spiritual and community health are inextricably entwined is entering mainstream thinking, and we are finally starting to include mental health when we talk about fitness and sport.

In his book on running, George Sheehan on Running to Win: How to Achieve the Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Victories, Sheehan describes these connections so eloquently: “And while these pounds were being shed, while the physiological miracles were occurring with the heart and muscle and metabolism, psychological marvels were taking place as well. Just so, the world over, bodies, minds, and souls are constantly being born again, during miles on the road.” Greek philosopher, Plato, had this to say: “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being.”

Athletes have been talking about endorphins for decades. Today more and more people are simply saying, “Running/lifting/biking [you fill in the blank] is good for my mental health.” And they’re right.

Still skeptical? Consider this paragraph from a Psychology Today blog: “…increasingly robust evidence suggests that exercise is not only necessary for the maintenance of good mental health, but it can be used to treat even chronic mental illness. For example, it is now clear that exercise reduces the likelihood of depression and also maintains mental health as we age. On the treatment side, exercise appears to be as good as existing pharmacological interventions across a range of conditions, such as mild to moderate depression, dementia, and anxiety, and even reduces cognitive issues in schizophrenia.”

Doctors and health practitioners have been prescribing exercise for improved well being for eons and yet most people brush off importance because it doesn’t seem as concrete as medication, or counselling or mindfulness. It just seems too obvious to be part of answer. And yet a main ingredient in whole health recipe is exercise, moving the body, getting out there and sweating, pushing ourselves into doing something that releases stress and simply clears our heads.

Last week I was stressed out when I showed up for cycling club. I felt endlessly behind at work, our special needs daughter had a hugely challenging day, one of my three cats kept throwing up… you know, life stuff. And so there I was on my bike, in a shitty mood, distracted, tired, flat. Twenty minutes later, I’m riding in a tight pace line and I have to concentrate. I’m riding hard so I have to dig into my body. One of my cycling group buddies asked how I was and initially I answered stressed, but after half an hour I noticed I wasn’t stressed. I was working incredibly hard and 100% focussed on the bike ahead of me and not my earlier stressors. The stress was gone.

In my life I notice that getting out of my head is a big part of feeling healthy and happy. The head is a scary place. It’s amazing the stuff you can spin up there when given a chance. My mind says all sorts of nasty stuff to me when I spend too much time there, so I try not to overstay. I get out of my head and into my body and spirit when I do yoga, or meditate, or play the piano, but I also need exercise to feel healthy. I need vigorous activity to shake myself out of too much introspection and get grounded again in my body. When I feel my muscles working, when I start sweating and feel my heart pounding, I am out of my head and fully in my body. The mind is often reluctant to get started, and the body often first resists the new demands we are placing on it, but after twenty minutes of strong effort in almost anything the body responds, we begin to feel good and our mood elevates. Again, the words of George Sheehan: “The first half hour of my run is for my body. The last half hour, for my soul. In the beginning the road is a miracle of solitude and escape. In the end it is a miracle of discovery and joy.” To this I would add it is also magic.

But the thing about the term ‘healthy’ is it’s hard to measure. Healthy is also a feeling. It’s not just in the body – it’s in the nervous system, in one’s outlook on life, one’s energy and a connection to something outside ourselves.

There are many high performance athletes who have great musculatures and max VO2, but they don’t have good mental health and they don’t have a spiritual connection to something outside themselves. That’s not health. Health is a whole; it’s having all three.

One of the beautiful things about running, cycling, lifting, or dancing is that you can do them in community. You can join a class, or a club, or start your own neighbourhood group. Many ways of moving our bodies can be no- to low-cost, and adaptable to the level or abilities you have, which makes fitness truly accessible to us all.

The importance of the connection between physical and mental health cannot be overstated. The healthiest people in the world live in communities where they connect with the same people socially everyday, where they have coffee together, or a beer after work. This is the way humans are supposed to live. We are pack animals and despite our North American obsession with personal privacy and space, we belong in a tribe. In our culture we have come to believe that privacy is our greatest privilege, but maybe it is also our greatest limitation. Too often, we are isolating ourselves from the greater community around us and the benefit of regular connection to friends and social groups. A running club or cycling group may seem initially to be just people we do a sport with, but if we belong long enough and find the courage to make connections, these people can genuinely be a supportive and caring community. Like Shireen Ahmed found in her soccer team. Some of us are introverts, some of us are extroverts, many of us are a little of both – all of us need community.

In the months that Unsinkable has been live, I have noticed a pattern in the stories. Many who have shared their story of physical injury or a mental health crisis talk about the roles community and exercise played in their journey to recovery and stability. Signing up for an Ironman saved Lynn Keane from sinking wholly into grief after her son died by suicide. It also helped her fulfill a dream they shared.

Move your body. Start small and build. Find a friend to move with you or a group you can join. Try to move every day, especially when you notice your mind dominating the stage. Journal how you felt before and after in case you forget and your mind tries to tell you it’s not the right time/day/weather or that you don’t deserve to feel better. Because you do.

See you out there,