The Doctor with the Wonder Pill

from Chasing Mavericks

Mental health matters. Not interested? You should be, because if you haven’t yet suffered with mental health issues, the chances are you will and you definitely know someone who has. It’s time we talked.

Dr Rosemary Leonard

Dr. Rosemary Leonard MBE, General Practitioner, TV doctor and author is on a mission. It’s a mission to make the world a healthier and in turn, a happier place. And she knows how,

“When you start a conversation concerning mental health, all too often we switch to talk of medication and anti-depressants without first considering one of the most powerful mood enhancers available: exercise. Apart from physical benefits of improved cardio vascularity, muscle tone, and weight loss, exercise provides mental well-being”.

Anyone working in sport or fitness will be familiar with the link between the physical and emotional self. For the average person on the street the link is not always so obvious. What few of us are familiar with is the scale of the challenge.

Here are some numbers to get your head around: UK Mental health charity, Care, estimate that each year one in four people will have some form of mental health issue. That’s around 16.5 million people in the UK alone. Every year. I shudder to think what the global numbers are.

Swim England has released research that shows swimming has significantly reduced anxiety and depression in 1.4 million adults. Of those nearly 500,000 have reduced or stopped medication completely. That’s a lot of Sertraline and Fluoxetine no longer being prescribed. As Dr. Rosemary says,

“Imagine the potential impact across the whole board, taking into account all the sports and forms of exercise available. When we exercise our brains receive an endorphin boost which is mood enhancing. Interestingly, exercise also affects our serotonin levels which, again, is mood enhancing”. She pauses, “If you could put exercise in a pill, it would be a wonder pill”.

If you could put exercise in a pill, it would be a wonder pill.

A wonder pill that’s free (or at least very cheap) and available to all. So why so many problems? Unfortunately, the facts about the mental health benefits of exercise are only going to get us so far. Even people with a burning desire to improve themselves may have any number of reasons holding them back. Dr. Rosemary elaborates,

“There are problems from a General Practitioner perspective when trying to get people to exercise. They often lack body confidence, they may be shy and withdrawn, they may simply not know where to start. Even wondering if you’re wearing the right clothes can be incredibly intimidating”.

Dr Rosemary Leonard on Rugby Pitch Duty

So where do you start? There’s more good news from Dr. Rosemary,

“UK Coaching have released research showing that being with a coach also helps mental well-being and motivation. So try to get in touch with a coach. They can be incredibly helpful; showing you the basics, guiding you and helping you improve”. She goes quiet for a moment as if summoning up an inner resolve, “ The NHS route is simply not good enough, not nearly good enough. If you have diabetes you’ll probably be prescribed exercise but it’s far less likely if you have mental health issues. Exercise should be on prescription for everyone”.

The NHS route is simply not good enough…Exercise should be on prescription for everyone.

If you’re reading this, have a coaching or highly active lifestyle, you may be wondering what to do. Dr. Rosemary has the answer,

“If any coaches are reading this (GM note: I know you are), I’d encourage you to pro-actively contact your local GP surgery and offer your services. Tell them what you can do. I believe it has to be local initiatives to make an impact rather than on a national level”.

Think about it. If everyone, suitably qualified, gave up one hour per week of their time the positive difference we could make. It doesn’t even have to be all about volunteering. There will be many people out there happy and able to pay to be guided through exercise towards an improved level of physical and mental health. They just don’t know where to start.

(If you want find out more about coaching visit UKcoaching.org).

Given that exercise is a proven, low cost means of improving our mental health why isn’t everyone taking advantage of the wonder pill before mental health issues arise? Part of the answer likely lies in our childhood. The worrying thing is that it’s a systemic issue.

Toni Minichiello with Olympic Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill

The UK has its own central challenge but I suspect it resonates across many different countries. It’s the ‘down grading’ of physical exercise for schoolchildren. Physical literacy is, all too often, overlooked at the expense of more time studying. It’s long been a passion of Olympic & World medal winning coach, Toni Minichiello to significantly increase the amount of physical exercise within the syllabus,

“Every single child should be exercising daily, as part of their schooling. Homework should include exercise. The joke is that not only will it improve their studies, it will have a significant impact on their health and wellbeing throughout their life. And yet governments keep upping desk-time whilst reducing the opportunities to move. We’re risking killing our kids through obesity or mental health. What parent would want to do that? It’s lunacy”.

It’s the ‘down grading’ of physical exercise for schoolchildren. Physical literacy is, all too often, overlooked at the expense of more time studying.

Dr. Rosemary is no less passionate,

“Putting physical exercise down the priority list is a crazy thing to do. It’s simply inviting issues with obesity and mental health when we should be combatting these, incredibly serious and far reaching health concerns, by increasing sport and exercise”.

This a topic we’ll be returning to, in detail, but for now give yourself time to reflect on how you fit into the mental health landscape where you live: amongst friends, family and community. Then plan a run/ride/swim/walk (etc) and take someone with you. And let me know how it makes you feel.

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