Exercise and Mental Health

A bit about me

My name is Craig Houston or ‘bear’ for those who know me. I have been working and volunteering in social care for a number of years now, including with ChildLine and in my current role as a Young Person’s Practitioner, working with young males aged 16-21 who have been through PolmontYoung Offender’s Prison. I have found throughout my time in social care that, despite many differing social factors and circumstances, mental health (and the lack of adequate support) is a common challenge for many. It always peeked my interest, as growing up I witnessed, my Mother in a physically and mentally abusive relationship, resulting in herstruggling with her mental health and subsequent attempted atsuicide. A strong woman, who survived all that and brought me up, without the privilege of having a safe space to talk about her mental health. I want to change that picture for others. Processing this caused me to struggle with my own mental health throughout my teens and early 20s but trying very hard to act like I wasn’t. It was no coincidence that my mental health improved when I spoke my feelings out loud.

In my current job, it is reported that 95% of young offenders have at least one diagnosable mental health condition. Further to this, poverty and deprivation make young people three times more likely to suffer a mental health condition and 45% of looked after young people (many of whom make up a large percentage of the prison population) in Scotland have at least one diagnosed mental health condition. I decided that I could do more for everyone and specifically those I support.

I set off on a journey to upskill myself and gain the necessary skills to train others in suicide and mental health first aid, mindfulness and safeguarding. This has led me to starting ‘Bear in Mind’ with the sole goal of making a difference in my community. I am now able to offer a variety of training courses to businesses and individuals alike.

Why I felt it appropriate to write this, was to share my experience of exercise and mental health. Upon release from Polmont, the young people whom go on to achieve the most happiness and positive outcomes for themselves (generally speaking) are those who engage in exercise programmes with staff and on their own. They seem to quickly develop more positive coping strategies resulting in a happier and healthier life. This is valued so much, that the project that I work for invests significant money in gym classes with our young people and every year we run a Triathlon at Millport withthem. I can honestly say that the shared struggle of the training and sense of achievement at the end of exercise goals, has a profound impact on young people (and the staffs) mental health and helps us build strong relationships.

What is the overall picture of Scotland’s mental health?

I thought it would be relevant to share the picture in Scotland:

  • 1 in 4 people are affected by mental health issues each year
  • People with serious mental illness die on average 20 years younger than those without
  • It is estimated that on average 280,000 people havesuicidal thoughts in Scotland each year, leading to suicide being the main cause of death in men aged 15-34
  • The attempts at suicide are between 40-100% more than the actual death by suicide figure
  • Suicide is not specific to men, but they 3 times more likely to suicide
  • It is expected that suicide rates, mental health and absence are likely to increase due to Covid-19, the uncertain and unusual times we are living through

Education of the issue

I am a real advocate of prevention and being as proactive as possible to tackle poor mental health and suicide. I feel that this, not only reduces the likelihood of suicide and poor mental health, right now but also safeguards people by building their resilience for the future. Perhaps discussion about mental health and suicide are avoided due to the ‘fear’ of starting a conversation or perhaps the stigma attached leads people to believe they will be perceived as ‘an attention seeker’ (a truly unhelpful and detrimental statement) but as we have seen, the issue is real and needs addressed. Unless we question our own behaviours then we risk another generation of silent sufferers, that like my Mothers.

Often the stigma around talking about our own mental health and suicide results in unhealthy coping strategies appearing,such as excess alcohol, drugs, poor sleeping patterns and eating habits, which only serve to exaggerate thoughts and feelings of worthlessness.

We talk about ‘self-care’ in social care for all staff, it is the acknowledgement that our mental health is a priority! We all have stress in our lives but we can be little help to others if we do not help ourselves. There is a reason that if a plane goes down, they ask you to see to your own emergency oxygen before helping others. We seem to living faster than ever and neglecting our own self-care, which is a worry of mine. The challenge we now all face, is that we live in a society where living fast is all too easy and we are alongside social media which at its best, undoubtedly has many benefits, it can keep people connected and highlights resources. However, at its worst social media can become an unhealthy habit. We appear more and more to be on autopilot, needlessly scrolling and placing our happiness on things we don’t need but want yesterday. Imagine for a minute you are struggling with your own mental health and you pick up your phone and see that airbrushed, perfectly placed photo, further making you feel inadequate and worthless. It is almost as if (fake) ‘perfect’ trumps real happiness and positive wellbeing, we have a duty to change that.

I am making it my mission to ensure everyone knows that the most basic of changes can really turn the tide on suicide and poor mental health. One of these changes is without doubt,exercise! Like mental health, exercise is a highly personal journey with setbacks, challenges and successes. What you find hard, may be a breeze for someone else and vice-versa. Like exercise, success does and should look different for everyone. Something of which there is no doubt though,exercise, is self-care!!

I believe that there is a great opportunity now for PT’s, players, trainers and managers to bring self-care to the mainstream and create a ‘community and culture’ of sharing, talking and inspiring one another to prioritise their mental health, through exercise. We all know of the physical benefits of exercise, it is time we started shouting about the mental ones!!

Proactive not reactive

Exercise helps safeguard an individual’s mental health. In fact, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) include being active as one of their 5 recommendations for better mental health. Every form of sports club, PT, football team, walking group etc, is taking a proactive approach to mental health (whether they know it or not). It doesn’t make individuals exempt from mental health issues but it certainly goes along to protecting it. There are countless benefits to exercise;

  • Better sleeping patterns
  • Happier moods
  • Better sex
  • Managing stress, anxiety or intrusive thoughts
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Building resilience (by controlling your mind not your mind controlling you)
  • Human connection
  • Reducing the risk of depression

Something I think often gets overlooked is that exercise is commonly prescribed by health professionals and not only that, it is reported to have more success tackling poor mental health than medication, with none of the side effects. Harvard University found that 15 minutes running daily, reduces the risk of depression by 26% and the routine of exercise can significantly reduce the chance of relapse. I am aware that depression and anxiety can rob you of motivation, fill you with fear and this can become a vicious cycle. However,starting small, setting achievable goals, seeking support and guidance with exercise is proven to energize the body and relax the mind. The science behind this suggests that, exercise releases endorphins, powerful chemicals which promote wellbeing and feelings of calm.

I have often found that when I exercise, I somewhat go through the motions and when I am done, I didn’t reflect on the activity itself. My thoughts during, feeling after, the route I took or the struggle I overcame. It is however, massively beneficial to acknowledge; practice and explore the coping strategies you build up during exercise. This will increase confidence, allow you to take the credit for your achievements and build resilience for the next time you feel like dropping out. All this keeps you returning to the activity that, as we have seen, is so valuable.

Exercise provides a great way of introducing other positive coping strategies.

During lockdown, I was finding it challenging to tame my mind when I was running. Constantly hearing those voices telling me to stop or give up. I tried turning my music up or running a different way but nothing helped. I explored mindfulness through a colleague and it has been a revelation for me. Google the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique, a simple strategy, using all the senses, it brings you to the present moment, calms you and helps control your thoughts. What you do is; really set out to identify 5 things that you currently can see, 4 that you can touch, 3 things that you can hear, 2 that you can smell, 1 that you can taste. It has been proven to reduces anxiety and brings you to the present moment without fear, worry or concern.

I am going to finish this with a summary of my feelings on exercise in relation to mental health. Exercise is an investment in your mental health and a longer fuller life, you deserve that. It can safeguard your mental health and it is as important, if not more important to acknowledge the mental benefits you feel, as well as the physical. Let’s all agree that we will no longer whisper the mental health benefits that exercise provides. Let’s starting shouting about these and begin to turn the tide on talking about mental health and suicide. We can do this together.

If you want to know more about the individual or group suicide, mental health, safeguarding, mindfulness or resilience courses I offer, get me on the phone or find me on the socials;

Instagram @bearinmind88

Twitter @bearinmind1988


Cheers team, please remember to look after yourself and take it easy!

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