I once lived a life almost ruled by anxiety, intrusive thoughts and paralysing fear. I spent years looking for the thing that would release me, and when I finally found it, it wasn’t medication or therapy (although both helped). It was running. It gave me a feeling that there was a world out there beckoning me, promising hope; it gave me independence and the sense that I had reserves of strength that I wasn’t aware of.
There are many reasons that physical activity is said to help mental health – it boosts mood, relieves stress and improves sleep. I also find that cardio exercise can use up some of the adrenaline caused by anxiety. My panic attacks stopped, intrusive thoughts lessened and a looming sense of doom was pushed back.
Although the stigma that sticks to mental illness has faded in recent years, the services set up to provide assistance are still stretched and underfunded. With the caveat that exercise alone can’t cure mental health problems, or even make life easier for those living with more severe illness, it can be a revelation. A recent study published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal supported the theory that physical activity is an effective prevention strategy for depression. (Although it adds that “physical activity may protect against depression, and/or depression may result in decreased physical activity”.)
The link between exercise and mental health is not new – in 1769, the Scottish physician William Buchan wrote that “of all the causes which conspire to render the life of man short and miserable, none have greater influence than the want of proper exercise” – but it is becoming more widely understood, says Dr Brendon Stubbs, head of physiotherapy at the South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust.