Moving for Mental Health

Saturday 18th May 2024By Sayer Clark

Movement has always played a large part in my life. Although it wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that I became introspective enough to really realise its value, I now know how important its impacts are not just physically, but mentally too. 

I was fortunate enough to grow up rurally and with freedom, often climbing trees and playing out great sagas in my imagination as I stomped through the woods. I think like most people the activity that made up my childhood was incidental, with my exercise coming from a desire to play and discover. I think that this is something a lot of us lose touch with on our journey to and through adulthood, but in recent years it’s been something I’ve tried to welcome back into my life. Why not climb that tree, jump over that river or run up that embankment just for the sake of it? The worst that will happen is you’ll be out of breath (or soaked) and who knows, you might even enjoy it.

Despite what I would consider fortunate childhood and teenage years, I ended up struggling mentally. It’s not something I found easy to talk about as a young man, wrapped up in common stereotypes of being male. I think I wanted to be stoic and immovable, strong and capable of facing whatever the world could throw at me, whilst the truth wasn’t quite as simple as that. There are times even the simplest of things feels like the greatest of challenges. I distinctly remember breaking down and sobbing halfway through laying a patio whilst self-employed. I felt as if I simply couldn’t manage any longer and somehow laying those patio slabs felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done. Mental health and my mental health in particular is still something I find awkward to discuss, but I’m grateful for the shift towards more open discussion and for places like The Pearl Exchange.

When I first spoke openly about the fact I struggled with depression I was 19. I’d been drinking a lot for a few years to try and numb myself to the world and to my struggles, not that I knew then that was the reason for it. I hadn’t done any real exercise or got out amongst the natural world for a while. I remember setting out from the house on that day, not really wanting to walk or move, but having had my saviour of a black lab Silas whine at me until I got up. I did 12 miles along the north Devon coast that morning, my feet drumming a steady rhythm into the soft ground as I meandered up and down the valleys. After that walk I decided it was time to be more honest, both with myself and the world, about how my mental health was impacting me and that I should start taking a more proactive approach to getting better. 

Since then, activity has played a more prominent role in how I choose to maintain and manage my mental wellbeing. I’ve spent hours climbing, running, cycling and walking, often in remote and rural places with only myself for company. Cycling in particular has played a huge part in my life in the last three years. There’s part of me that feels as if fighting up an incline on the Cornish coast is somewhat similar to the seemingly endless ups and downs that I’ve experienced mentally. Sometimes you gather a little momentum, just enough to rocket up the first struggle, but as you turn the corner you see the road you’ve taken curve ever upwards. It’s easy at this point to feel defeated, to ask yourself if the effort is worth it if you just have to keep struggling, keep climbing and keep fighting to move forward. In my personal opinion, it’s always worth it. There’s no better feeling than cresting a hill, finishing a run or topping a particularly hard climb. These things give me perspective. Taking a moment to breathe at the end of something difficult allows you to look behind you, see how far you’ve come and just how much distance you’ve covered.

I think that improving my mental wellbeing follows a similar story and has been directly influenced by movement, in times of darkness or numbness its easy to lose faith in yourself, to question if you’re strong enough to crest the current hill or have the energy to keep moving forwards. But the reward comes when there’s some reprieve from the struggle, when you best your current challenges and when you look back and see just how far you’ve come and the things you’ve achieved you thought you might never be capable of. Although there may be more dips and troughs to come there’s understanding to be found in the struggle and just like a muscle I believe you can build your mental resilience and strength through facing challenges.

I can only speak for myself but I believe that movement has propelled me not just physically but mentally forwards over the years and I’d recommend to anyone to get up and out more often. Even if you feel perfectly at peace as you are, there might be something for you to gain from getting outside and getting active, whether it’s a one mile walk or a one hundred mile bike ride. 

If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading my ramble on movement and mental health. Go get out there, spend some time looking at the leaves, birds, trees and sea. Give your brain and body something to thank you for and most importantly look after yourself, give yourself a pat on the back occasionally for what you’ve overcome and remember to stop and look around you once in a while to see how far you’ve travelled on your journey and to appreciate the work you’ve put in to get where you are.