Exercising the Mind

It is inevitable that some days my only form of exercise will be the walk from my flat to the library and back, increasing my step count with a light jog down to Food in Focus at lunchtime, and a few trips to refill my water bottle. On these days I’m agitated, my social anxiety follows me around, and I long to be anywhere but inside. It’s during one of these library stints that I most look forward to future bike rides, mentally planning routes as I write my dissertation. For me, exercise gives me a reason to go outside, blocking out that anxious voice for an hour or so, pumping good endorphins around my body.

We all know that exercise is important for our physical health. But often exercising for fitness can feel like a chore, since going to the gym just because you feel you should often isn’t enjoyable, and isn’t likely to make you want to go back. Instead, focussing on the benefits of exercise for mental health may be a better way to encourage ourselves to become more active. Countless studies show that exercise can benefit mental health. Indeed, a recent landmark study has shown that exercise is not just beneficial for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, but also for those without. The Black Dog Institute conducted long term research into the physical activity of 33,000 Norwegians, finding that 12% of cases of depression could have been prevented if participants undertook one hour of physical exercise a week. As the first study that has quantified the preventative effect of exercise upon mental health, this research demonstrates the importance of starting exercising now to ensure our future wellbeing.

Where we exercise may also affect the amount of impact it can have on our mental health. My most enjoyable cycles are the ones that take me through green spaces, which seems self-explanatory – riding through Kelvingrove Park is more likely to be enjoyable than cycling up Great Western Road. Research backs this up: a study by the Biological Sciences department at the University of Essex found that just looking at pictures of urban or rural greenery during exercise has a significantly more positive effect on self-esteem than exercise alone.

Luckily in Glasgow, greenery is never far away. You’ll have been reminded plenty of times that Glasgow is ‘our dear green place’, and that there are over 90 parks around the city. Not just  Kelvingrove and the Botanic Gardens. Also, just over the border in South Lanarkshire, a 15 minute train ride from Partick station, is Cuningar Loop, a brand-new woodland park which alongside walking and cycling trails, boasts Scotland’s first outdoor bouldering park. Also newly formed, Stretching from Easterhouse in Glasgow to Coatbridge, the Seven Lochs Wetland Park is Scotland’s largest urban nature park encompassing seven lochs, five local nature reserves and a country park.

This is all great news, but student life is busy and exercise isn’t always at the top of our agenda. The key is finding the type of physical activity that works for you. For some people, group exercise like a Zumba class will be great, because it provides a supportive environment. For me, group exercise is my worst nightmare, increasing my anxiety rather than helping it. When I moved to university, I bought a bike to get me from A to B, but quickly realised it’s my perfect form of exercise as I can choose the route and difficulty of my cycle, and ride alone or in a group. And while apps like Strava and Map My Ride can be a useful tool to track achievements, cycling generally gives me much needed space away from my phone.

However, exercise is not a quick fix: whilst it can support improvements in mental health, the charity Mind warns that for those suffering from severe mental health problems exercise is likely to be “one tool from a kit of many, with more traditional tools such as drugs or therapy likely to be at the forefront”. On those days when it’s hard to get out of bed and dressed, exercising seems as viable as being able to teleport to the moon, so statements like “just go for a relaxing walk” offer no help. What we can do is to try lots of different activities, celebrating our own and each other’s achievements in exercise, and at those times when exercising is beyond us, try not to feel guilty because we know that being active is always an option on the good days.

[Rowan Rush-Morgan]

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