Physical Exercise. Probably the best thing you can do to manage your mental health. But what happens to your brain when you stop playing the sports you love?
For me there is a link between my bouts of depression and anxiety and my gradual decreased participation in sport over the past decade and a half.
As a result, I have slowly learnt to understand that physical exercise acts as a flood defence in preventing the brain becoming overwhelmed with poor mental health.
In other words, it acts as a protector.
Today is World Mental Health Day, but I grew up in the late 90's and early 2000's -- a time when mental health wasn't at the forefront of society. Nobody outside of sufferers and their families spoke about it -- especially if you were a male. Awareness of it as a youngster in a school or the wider world was non-existent.
I do remember seeing the brain's capabilities, though -- having witnessed a relative suffer with manic-depression (now known as bipolar disorder), and the effects this had on everyone, not to mention the sufferer. I never really understood this illness of the brain. I also didn't understand how a human could not have full control over their own thoughts and behaviour. Very naive, granted.
During my school days and teenage years, I was always exercising. Constantly feeding my brain with endorphins. Totally unaware that not only was it benefiting me physically, it was also keeping that muscle inside my head, healthy.
Playing football was my number one form of exercise. I trained and played for my school twice a week, as did I for a separate club team. I participated in athletics and cricket; I played football in the streets. I ran long distance events. I was always sweating and caked in mud.
This level of physical activity remained part of my life until my late teens. At 17 and 364 days I was at peak health and fitness.
And then I hit 18.
It was at this point in my life I entered the world of work and was sucked into the draw of pubs and clubs and other social norms of my peer group at the time. I began subconsciously neglecting my health -- both physical and mental by following these social expectations. Get a job, any job. Whilst you're at it, save for a house. Search for a partner. Have a kid. Maybe two. All the while not even realising that amongst these life events, my mental health was lurking behind a curtain, eating away at my brain. And I had no idea.
Shift work meant I could no longer play football as much as I wanted. I couldn't attend training and was only available to play every other week. I wasted time and money binge drinking and enduring hangovers which ultimately depleted my fitness levels and sapped my mood and motivation.
After a few half-hearted attempts at clinging on to remaining active, it slowly dwindled to the level I am at today. Inactive.
For me it is no coincidence that my mental health (intense moods, outlook on life, energy levels etc) has got worse as my physical activity levels have shrank.
Time To Sweat
Of course, I am not blaming the decrease in exercise as the only reason for my depression and anxiety, but I believe it is one of the reasons. Alongside other methods aimed at keeping poor mental health at bay - such as diet, mindfulness and talking -- exercise is a tool in which I can control directly.
And because I am currently going through a low, I have been inspired by the fantastic work being done by the #HeadsTogether campaign -- which aims to raise awareness and de-stigmatise mental health in society. I have made it a priority to step back outside to get active. I have registered to run in a local marathon; I am signed up to play squash -- a game I have never played before. This will give me focus and determination as well as a respect for what physical activity does for the body.
It is time to feed that brain with endorphins once more.
It is time to sweat and become caked in proverbial mud once again.