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Exercise and mental health

Thursday 13 January 2022

It wasn’t until lockdown 2020 that I fully appreciated the connection between exercise and mental health.

We caught up with Alex from Basking Babies Southend to hear about her journey to fitness through a pandemic… 

I was always a fairly sporty person at school, enjoying netball and athletics. As I got older and life got busier, it was harder to find the time to exercise. Over the years I had tried running, but always felt very self-conscious. It was never something I was able to stick to.  

Then 2020 happened! 

Like many others, I was suddenly left with a whole lot of time of my hands. Dealing with the reality of the pandemic, three children at home, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and adding that to the grief of losing my mum earlier on in the year. I knew something had to change.  

Initially I was inspired by the PE with Joe workouts, trying to encourage movement and exercise into the children’s day. That alongside some Cosmic Kids Yoga helped me to realise how much it benefited us all to have something else to think about. Plus at the same time knowing we were keeping our bodies healthy. It also made me realise just how unfit I had become, so I decided to get my running shoes back out again. Due to the lockdown restrictions, I couldn’t go far (which was handy as I couldn’t physically run far either!) and on April 22nd 2020 I managed my first run with a total distance of 2.01km. Not particularly far, but it was a start and it was hard, really hard. I was more determined than ever before to change our lifestyles.  

What running did for me 

As I kept up with the running, not only did my physical health change, but I noticed a change in my mental health too. Getting out in the fresh air gave me time to take in my own thoughts, giving me some much-needed head space to process my emotions. Over time, I noticed it began to make me a much calmer person. I could deal with the anxieties of day-to-day life much better, and I was much more able to support my family during a really difficult time. I also had a confidence in myself that I don’t think I’d ever felt before.  

I’m the sort of person who needs an end goal in sight to be able to motivate myself. Even with noticing the changes to both my mind and body, I needed something to aim for. I had been doing virtual running medals to help me achieve a certain distance each month, but I knew that I needed something more…  

The London Marathon 

One day at the end of 2020 – on a whim – I applied for a London Marathon charity place. Never in a million years did I think I’d be offered a spot. I wanted to run for The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation – which is the only UK lung cancer charity dedicated to helping everyone affected by the disease – in memory of my mum. A few months later, I got a call offering me a spot. I instantly said yes (I knew if I gave myself time to think about it, I’d talk myself out of it!) and that was that.  

The marathon was in October, so I had most of 2021 to prepare myself. I had no idea how much more of a mental challenge the training would be. Thankfully, I managed to stay injury free and I could keep up physically, but mentally pushing myself to run 20-mile training runs was a challenge! I was setting my alarm for 5am so I could get up and get out before the children were up. That meant I was home at a reasonable time to be able to take on the rest of the day.

I had to carefully plan each run so I knew where I was going (my sense of direction is notoriously abysmal!) Quite often my long runs would take me along the huge stretch of seafront – from Shoebury Garrison all the way along to Chalkwell beach – which I loved. The sea air, the sunshine, the iconic views of the pier and the cliffs, all added to my passion to achieve my end goal.

In the end I ran the marathon in 5:00:01. While I’m hugely proud of this achievement, I now want to do it again in under 5 hours!  

Exercise for the body and mind 

Physical activity is so good for your body and your mind. When it comes to starting a new approach to keeping fit, there is no point in trying something you won’t enjoy as it makes it really hard to keep it up. Try to think of it more like bringing movement into your day rather than calling it exercise. Exercise can feel like a chore, especially if you’re already sleep deprived or stressed. Being active releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good, boosting your self-esteem and helping you to concentrate as well as sleep well and feel better.

I guarantee you won’t feel bad after any sort of workout. It can mean anything from HIIT, to a walk to the shops, a run or some yoga. Everyone feels good at the end.  

About the author

Alex Smith

Franchise owner and instructor for Basking Babies Southend-on-Sea.

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