Managing mental health through exercise

James Ross. Mature student on the Mind Body Matters YMCA pilot.

In January, many of us are thinking about kicking old habits or starting something new. For others, it’s a time of extreme stress as they prepare for their mock exams ahead of their summer finals. Nobody loves exams, but for some, the prospect of sitting in silence for three hours recalling everything they know, is enough to induce panic attacks, sleepless nights and severe anxiety. The YMCA has teamed up with London’s Birkbeck University and designed a pilot eight week exercise programme ‘Mind Body Matters’ to help manage student stress.  

According to Birkbeck University Counselling Service, “Exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms as talking therapies or taking antidepressants.” Research also shows that exercise boosts the self-esteem of people diagnosed with mental illness.

James is studying a Masters in ‘Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability’ part-time at Birkbeck University. The 30-year-old mature student has been suffering from anxiety since childhood, but it was when he was recently assaulted by a man on a moped, that his condition worsened:

“That took me to a level of anxiety that I hadn’t experienced before and the exams certainly exacerbated the issue. There were other factors like lack of sleep - London is not a place where you can fully study without working alongside it. It’s very difficult to commit yourself wholly to studies. I was panicking that I wouldn’t be good enough, especially around exams – I would fluctuate from being incredibly calm to blind panic. I’d wonder how on earth I would get through an exam and pass it.”

“As a mature student, I also hadn’t studied for seven years. The week leading up to my exams, I felt physically sick half of the time. The prospect of sitting a three hour exam was daunting, combined with the stress of not knowing what’s coming at you. When you’re feeling anxious and you don’t have control of a situation, you don’t see a way of getting out of it - that can re-trigger what you’re feeling. You want to get away from whatever is causing you anxiety, but when you’ve got an exam, it’s not going to end until after you’ve sat the exam. It’s when I’ve stepped out of that final exam, I can breathe again.”


A different kind of therapy

Each ‘Mind Body Matters’ eight week programme is tailor-made to each student depending on what they have asked for during their initial session. The final programmes will run until the end of March, at which point, Birkbeck’s Counselling Service will measure programme impact on the psychological wellbeing of their students. Each programme will include a blood pressure and heart rate assessment and four weekly supervised personal training sessions. Students have full access to the gym and pool and can try a variety of exercise classes. YMCA staff like Communities Programme Manager, Declan Duncan, are on hand to help:

“We’re here just to give them a bit of guidance and support to make sure they’re doing ok. We’re offering a safe space for them to do some physical activity. They turn up for their supervised sessions and get on with their gym programme set by their instructor – they might get on the treadmill for 10 mins, have a stretch, do some resistance training or they might have been set some smart goals like improving leg strength. Each programme is tailored to what they want. It’s an opportunity for them to let off steam.”

“We help people manage their stress and anxiety through exercise rather than seeing a Counsellor. Exercise is a different kind of medicine. Breathing is a massively important way to manage stress, but there’s also that endorphin rush you get when you’ve done a really good row on the rowing machine and you’ve built up a bit of a sweat. There needs to be a balance between the mind and body.”

‘Mind Body Matters’ is a practical alternative to talking therapy or taking anti-depressants - the person with the mental health condition is taking an active lead in their treatment rather than being a passive recipient. Designing and fully interacting with their own programme gives them a greater sense of agency. James is delighted with the results:

“‘Mind Body Matters’ has been really important in how I’ve dealt with my anxiety. I would 100% recommend it to any students suffering from anxiety and depression. In the way talking therapies didn’t help, it gave me an outlet and an opportunity to put myself into a new environment and experience new things. You are given the agency to do what works best for you. I wouldn’t say it’s completely gone away, but my anxiety has certainly improved. You can feel the endorphins and it makes you happier. Ultimately, I feel stronger, fitter and more confident walking along busy streets since joining. Going to the gym has changed everything.”

Variety is the spice of life!

The YMCA Club offers many ‘mind body’ classes which can help manage stress like Kundalini Yoga, Zumba, Pilates and Supple Strength. There’s also the opportunity to do more traditional cardio-vascular exercises in the gym to achieve that ‘feel good’ factor after a hard run on the treadmill or a hard row. For students prone to panic attacks, the YMCA would suggest coming to the gym at quieter times, like mid-mornings or mid-afternoons. Avoid lunch times and evenings. There’s also quieter areas for stretching like Studio 3 or the chapel for deep breathing and meditation.

Following the successful completion of their eight week programme, each student has the option to take out the concessionary student membership. James has been surprised by the facilities, YMCA staff and the sheer variety of what’s on offer:

“The facilities are amazing – it has everything. I really enjoy the variety at my fingertips. I can balance on a surfboard in a swimming pool in the heart of London, book into a yoga class, go to the gym and then do a class where I’m able to stretch out my whole body. I can use the sauna or go to classes throughout the day, every day of the week. The staff are helpful, kind and understanding. They give you confidence to do whatever you put your mind to. They make you feel very welcome and remove some of the anxiety about being in a new space, particularly for someone who isn’t used to the gym - no judgements, really friendly and very open. The YMCA offers everything, not just a treadmill and weights.”

Claire.Gilderson | 19 December 2018