Inspired by the Olympics: the link between exercise and mental health
I love the Olympics. The idea that these athletes are pushing themselves to their absolute limits to achieve success and world recognition astonishes me. I will never be in as good physical condition as those competing but I certainly don't see anything wrong with using their levels of motivation and determination to inspire me in the way I live my life.
While I love spectating and hold immeasurable admiration for professional athletes, I was never that into keeping myself in good shape. That was until I went to university at 18. Those who have experienced leaving home for university will know that this is a huge turning point in life. I was about to leave everything that was familiar to me - my family, friends, regular haunts – behind to embark on my own path. As someone who suffered from panic attacks and intense anxiety, I regularly found myself hysterical with stress and dread at the very thought of leaving.
Luckily, I had a great support network so I made the journey to university easily enough – but it was staying there that was the problem. My first month was pretty awful – getting used to living with other people my age, juggling huge amounts of money for the first time and adjusting to having a long distance relationship with my boyfriend all put huge amounts of unwanted stress on me. It was then that I took to the internet to find out a way for me to cope with my new situation without any dramatic consequences.
It seems bizarre now but at the time exercise hadn’t even occurred to me as an easy solution to many of my problems. However, many forums and articles later, I decided that the first thing I’d do the next day was sign up to the gym. I didn’t have to of course, I could’ve taken up jogging outside, but for me there’s something about all those numbers and statistics offered by the machines that wills you to push yourself that bit further. That extra minute, those few more metres, a shorter time.
Before long, I found myself at the gym nearly every day because of the feeling I got after a challenging workout. Even if I’d had a long day of lectures or a deadline to meet, I made sure I carried on going. Afterwards I’d feel upbeat, energised and in control. It’s an incredibly positive environment of people all trying to better themselves physically and mentally, which only served to encourage me further.
Whether it’s scientifically proven to help with mental issues or not, exercise benefitted me personally in many ways. I drank far more water, slept better and as a result my days of lethargy (not uncommon as a student!) were few and far between. As well as that, I felt lighter and more confident with my appearance. Slowly, the positive habits from exercise alone seeped into my normal lifestyle and helped me to adapt to become less susceptible to stress.
Perhaps the main advantage in terms of mental health was that it felt like it gave me ‘extra time’. It was either time away from everyday worries - where I didn’t have to think about anything and could just enjoy powering away - or time to organise my thoughts and set up an achievable ‘To Do’ list which made me more productive and therefore less pressured.
A year on and I haven’t felt absorbed by anxiety since. I walk absolutely everywhere, eat well and it’s reflected in my university results and attitude to life. If you haven’t tried exercise to help you cope, you may be missing a trick – it’s about the best decision I ever made and in the spirit of the Olympics, now is a great time to start.