5 of the best sporting activities for a healthy mind
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Medical experts and amateur athletes share their thoughts and experiences on the best activities to strengthen your mental fitness.
Slowly but surely, the discourse about mental health is changing for the better.
With campaigns such as ‘It’s Okay To Not Feel Okay’ reassuring people with depression and anxiety that their suffering is not abnormal, there's never been a better time to talk.
But the sporting world can offer more than just support. Physical fitness can have a profound effect on your mental fitness. Here medical experts and amateur athletes share their knowledge and stories to identify five of the best sports for mental wellbeing.
It's well documented how beneficial running is for our physical health, but many runners are also pounding tracks, paths and roads to improve their mindset. The reason lies in the overwhelming exhilaration — commonly known as a runner’s high — evoked by the release of endorphins, which not only reduce pain or stress but increase happiness as well.
In 2008, German neuroscientists used functional brain imaging to show that, in trained runners, beta-endorphin levels do indeed spike in the brain after a two-hour run. Increased endorphin activity in the brain also correlated with the runners’ self-reported feelings of euphoria.
Dr Juliet McGrattan, the women’s health lead and master coach for the social running network 261 Fearless, echoes the findings: “Intense or prolonged exercise can produce high levels of endorphins. The term runner’s high is a demonstration of this phenomenon, where long-distance running can induce a state of euphoria in runners.
“Endorphins are the body’s own opiates, a group of drugs which includes morphine, and have a similar effect in the brain, causing a feeling of intense wellbeing and possibly explaining the addictive potential of running."
Running is not only addictive for Marc Baker, a 40-year-old religious education teacher from Reading, but it’s been his salvation. Previously diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2 disorder (manic depression) in his thirties and hospitalised three times after unsuccessful suicide attempts, he laced up and never looked back:
“I started running as part of my recovery after I’d put on a lot of weight due to some new medication," he says. "I’d been told that it could help with your mood and provide some structure to your day when trying to get back into a routine. I found that out for myself, and then, with the Couch to 5k app, I soon got the running bug and was signing up for fun runs and eventually progressing to half-marathons.”
Marc is now a run leader with the Run Talk Run group, which bills itself as a mental health support community and holds weekly 5km jogs in locations worldwide. He also runs solo and derives great mental health benefits from both activities:
“When I run alone, I find that it helps motivate me when I’m feeling low and have the natural inclination to withdraw, but also calms me when I’m feeling manic. A good run is the best meditation time for me. [It's] time alone, either to make sense of intrusive thoughts or just to get away from them for a while. I can’t think of a run where I’ve ever felt worse for having done it.
“I get a lot of the same benefits from running with a group but with the added sense of community, the opportunity to get things off my chest with people who may have some first-hand experience of what I’m describing, or being there for other people as someone to listen when they need to talk. We aren’t therapists, we can’t fix each other’s problems, but we provide a space for people to be as honest as they need to be, while getting all the physical benefits of the run, too."
Swimming has significantly reduced the symptoms of anxiety or depression for 1.4 million adults in Britain, according to research published last year.
Furthermore, almost half a million (492,000) British adults with mental health issues who swim say that they have reduced the number of visits to a medical professional regarding their mental health as a result of swimming.
The YouGov poll, commissioned by Swim England, also revealed that more than 490,000 people have reduced, or no longer take, medication for their mental health condition as a result of swimming.
Maria Parker-Harris, 32, from Bournemouth, can testify to these benefits. For around two years, long-term infertility had a severe impact on her mental health, to the extent that she felt “ashamed, isolated, humiliated, scared and completely alone”.
She was advised to lose 10 per cent of her body weight to aid her treatment and found that having “a new focus, something I could control” gave her "purpose and a renewed sense of ability".
“I saw an advert for the Aspire Channel Swim and it instantly clicked,” says Maria, who recently completed a swimming half-marathon after gradually upping her distances. “I hadn’t been swimming since a teen, but I love a challenge and wanted to find something my body could do, rather than focusing on the one thing my body couldn’t.
“What surprised me was the positive effect swimming had on my mental health. Not only did I benefit from seeing my body grow stronger and more capable, but I also have two hours every week with nothing to focus on but counting laps and processing the frustration, bad news, painful treatment or other stress from the week. Over time, my swimming sessions helped me to let go and turn a corner to a much happier state of mind.”
Maria adds: “Swimming can easily slot into the busiest of schedules and gives you precious time to relax and let go of your struggles. Whether you like swimming in nature, or prefer the warmth of your local indoor pool, making time for your physical and mental health is vital to your wellbeing."
3. Team sports
A study in the American journal Lancet Psychiatry found that popular team sports may have a slight edge over other forms of physical activity in terms of their mental health benefits.
Researchers analysed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey data from 1.2 million US adults between 2011 and 2015 and found – across age, gender, education status and income – people who exercised reported fewer days of bad mental health than those who didn’t. And those who played team sports reported the fewest.
Of the findings, Dr Nick Peirce, chief medical officer of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), says: “We have seen from our recreational surveys and from professional sport that the team environment promotes communication skills, self-esteem, companionship, laughter, flourishment, resilience and leadership skills. It can also provide a point of safety for individuals that may struggle outside of this."
George Studd, a 27-year-old strength and conditioning coach in Bath, has thrived in a team sport environment after suffering from clinical depression and anxiety since the age of 16.
His symptoms worsened when he ended his semi-professional rugby career for Otley at the age of 23, but he has found solace in playing basketball. “Basketball became my outlet and my routine because it was a sport that I could practise on my own when I was feeling too down to deal with other people, and I could integrate into a team and spend time with my friends when I was feeling better,” he says.
“I played a lot of basketball when I was younger, competing in National League up to U16s for Durham Wildcats, and I took up basketball again at university when I was injured and unable to play rugby. [Seeing] incremental improvements was incredibly helpful. It requires structure and consistency and the accumulation of small wins building towards something bigger, either in tweaking your technique on a jump shot or pushing that little bit further when you are tired and want to give up, which I felt transferred into my healing process well.
"On top of this, the endorphin release from playing basketball was key in keeping me level. It is really accessible; you just need a ball and a park to get a pick-me-up and feel better immediately. The team aspect is so important as it keeps you involved with the real world. When you are feeling low, it’s really hard to get out and talk to people. [With basketball] you find yourself immersed in the team environment and culture, surrounded by likeminded people without even realising.”
4. Extreme sports
All sports induce adrenaline rushes, but none more so than action/adventure sports, given the high degree of risk associated with many of them. These activities often involve speed, height and an intense level of physical exertion, and include the likes of surfing, mountaineering and parachuting.
In 2016, one extreme sport in particular, tandem skydiving, was found by a major study to improve treatment among young adults suffering from anhedonia — the inability to feel pleasure from normally pleasurable activities.
The researchers chose skydiving for its ability to produce a strong emotional response. Although most people feel fear during a skydive, the resultant adrenaline combined with increased levels of dopamine in the brain can often turn to euphoria.
One man who knows first-hand about the uplifting psychological effects of an extreme sport on mental health isThomas Palmer, a 29-year-old video producer from London who, following years of depression, recently undertook an incredible challenge to summit Colombia's 10 highest mountains – despite having no mountaineering experience whatsoever.
Thomas has suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety since the age of 21. “They are like twin sisters and the black dog that follows you around," he says, "they're always there even when you’re smiling and laughing. It clings to your every moment, just nudging you, giving you a reminder."
It was as a cameraman on Ross Edgley’s Great British Swim last year, where he was directly inspired by Ross to embark on his very own adventurous odyssey. Training in the gym, motivational videos and his friends and family “saved” him, but the challenge was what underpinned it all.
"[A challenge] allows you to have a goal, a focus which can be so important to re-centre your mind and stop yourself worrying about anything and everything," he reveals of the mountaineering mission that has since imbued him with a new lust for life. "Adventure takes you out into the great outdoors, gets you away from the computer screens and allows you to reconnect with nature and yourself."
Not that there weren't stresses along the way. As well as being a logistical minefield, it was at times a literal one, with Thomas warned there could be booby-trapped explosives underfoot in certain parts of the Colombian jungle. The novice explorer also had to deal with bone-chilling temperatures, gaping glaciers, the threat of toxic volcanic gas and even the presence of FARC, the paramilitary group which controlled vast swathes of Colombia's national parks. Yet despite all of this, Thomas found himself summiting some of the biggest and baddest peaks in the country.
“There is something liberating about getting your hands and face dirty, getting lost in a jungle, stranded on a mountain, battered by rain and wind," he says. "Ultimately, l think you can make an adventure your own, you can mould it into what you want it to be, you can throw yourself into it, get lost in it and it will always surprise you, challenge you, and, most importantly, allow you to grow.
“We as humans need growth, we need to constantly evolve and an adventure has every single ingredient to allow you to do that every second. Don’t wait, go now!”
You can view how Thomas got on here.
A 2018 study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health concluded that cycling is the mode of transport associated with the greatest health benefits: better self-perceived general health, better mental health and fewer feelings of loneliness.
Additionally, with so many different ways to bike, be it MTB, road racing, or even trials and tricks like Danny MacAskill, there's literally something on two wheels for everybody. The social nature of cycling clubs should also not be underestimated, giving cyclists an opportunity to interact with like-minded people.
No matter which discipline you choose though, any and all physical activity is a great way to boost your mental fitness, as Dr McGrattan points out: “Sport – and exercise in general – has a very powerful effect on the brain. Endorphins lift your mood and give you a sense of wellbeing which can last well beyond the exercise itself.
"More than that, sport should be recognised for its ability to raise your self-esteem, give you confidence and connect you with others, all of which we know are vital for good mental health."