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Sports: How it benefits the mind & body

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There might be one pandemic that is stealing the headlines and taking up all of our attention at the moment, but beneath that there is a far more pernicious pandemic lurking beneath the surface.

In a recent study it was found that as many as 10 million people in the UK are thought to have needed new or additional mental health support in the past year. Anxiety, depression and grief are amongst the three biggest issues that the average Briton is struggling with on a daily basis.

In this article, we look at how you can use sport to not only improve your physical health but to boost your mental health as well.

Sport’s Physical Benefits

 If exercise came in a pill, it would be hailed as the new miracle cure for 90% of life’s ailments and diseases. Fortunately, it doesn’t come in a pill and you can access it anywhere and anytime for free.

Partaking in moderate to high intensity exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes a day has been medically proven to:

  • Reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke by up to 35%
  • Half your risk of developing colon cancer
  • Reduce your chances of an early death by up to 30%
  • Half your risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • Reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis by up to 83%

The NHS recommends that to achieve these benefits you partake in moderate to high intensity exercise for a minimum of 150 minutes a week. The health service does recommend though that you put an emphasis on what it calls ‘vigorous intensity activity’.

This is an activity that will raise your heartbeat and have you breathing heavily, to the point where you won’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing breath.

The best activity to provoke this reaction is sport. Tennis, football, rugby and even cricket can be counted as vigorous intensity activity. To reap the best health benefits of exercise, play your favourite sport at least once a week and play it hard!

(Watch this video from the NHS to see how easy it is to get in your 150 minutes of exercise a week.)

Sport’s Mental Benefits

The mental health benefits of playing sports are too many and great to cover in extensive detail here, so instead we’ll focus on the three keyways that playing sport can benefit your mind.

#1 Sport is a drug

Depression and low mood can be linked to a deficiency of dopamine or an error in how our bodies process it. Dopamine is a chemical that is linked with happiness, our brains will usually release dopamine when we partake in a pleasurable activity.

For example, when you eat your favourite food or meet up with a relative you haven’t seen in a while, your body will release dopamine. Likewise, when we exercise our bodies produce high levels of dopamine.

This in itself means that any exercise, even just walking, can be beneficial to our mental health. However, sport and particularly team sports can prompt our bodies to produce even more dopamine.

Which means that people who play sport regularly are more likely to have higher levels of dopamine in their body and therefore, a lower risk of suffering from depression or low mood. According to the NHS, playing team sports can reduce our risks of depression by up to 30%.

#2 It reduces anxiety

 Every single one of us has anxiety in our daily lives, and for the most part it is a good thing. Anxiety is a motivator and it helps to keep us alert to danger and difficult situations in our daily lives.

However, when it rises too high it can turn into panic which is generally what we think of when we speak about anxiety in a mental health context. When we are in a state of panic we are on high alert and our bodies are overflowing with energy to ward off a threat that is not really there.

Sport is an amazing way off helping to burn off this energy and directing our brain’s attention from the feelings of panic and negative thoughts to the present moment. When we play sport, we reduce the stress hormone levels in our bodies and therefore reduce our anxiety levels from panic to manageable.

#3 It improves sleep

One of the major causes of poor mental health is a chaotic sleep pattern whereby we sleep too much or too little. The lack of routine that many of us have felt in the past year has exacerbated sleep problems in many people.

As a child you most probably heard a parent or guardian saying, ‘you’ll sleep well tonight’ after a day of playing out or a high intensity activity. This holds true in adulthood too, the more you exercise the more tired you will become.

If you’re struggling to fall asleep or even stay asleep, high intensity sport could be just what you need to force your body back into a healthy sleeping pattern.

#4 Case Study: Tyson Fury

“Nothing’s ever going to hit you as hard as life will.”

Tyson Fury, two-time world heavyweight champion of the world is the greatest example of the physical and mental benefits that sport can have. Tyson Fury’s net worth, devoted fanbase and phenomenal achievements didn’t make him immune to all of life’s problems.

In 2016 Fury was stripped off two heavyweight titles after admitting to using cocaine. The boxer, who has been diagnosed with manic depressive disorder said that he used recreational drugs and alcohol to deal with his mental health.

(Watch as Tyson Fury speaks about his mental health journey.)

Following his suspension from boxing, Fury was in a dark place and says that he was certain he was going to take his own life. But through sport and training, Fury rediscovered his purpose in life at the same time as improving both his physical and mental health.

Now he is at the top of his game again and looking forward to a heavyweight clash with fellow Briton Anthony Joshua. He is also in a place where he feels capable of coping with the dips in his mental health without relying on the vices of alcohol and drug use.

If sport can bring Tyson Fury back from the edge, it can do the same for anyone. Improve your mental and physical well being today by throwing yourself into the sport that you love.