When I told the team that I was planning activities to promote National Fitness Day, I was met with equal amounts of joy and absolute terror. I think when it comes to fitness, there can sometimes be a bit of trepidation. That’s because when we think about ‘Fitness’, our thoughts often turn to high-impact, endurance races, and classes where our bodies are pushed to the max, but should they?
In the last few years, the fitness industry has diversified and seen exceptional growth with a current market value of $96.7 billion, expecting to rise to $131.9 billion by 2028. Contract-only gyms have been replaced with flexible pay-as-you-go options, and there has been a huge rise in the number of people choosing yoga over an energy busting spinning class. As a nation, there seems to be a deeper understanding of the connection between physical activity and mental wellness, backed up by scientific reasoning.
The social benefits of team activities and sports, especially from early age, are critical to our mental development. They enable us to form relationships, negate conflict, think critically and work for a greater good. On the flip side, individual pursuits give us determination, improve efficacy and accountability.
On a more scientific level, it’s been proven that fitness makes us happy. When we exercise, an increase in dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin levels make us feel more positive and help to reduce everyday aches and pains. With the rise of so many more mindful activities, the world of fitness has become more accessible for everyone of all ages and abilities.
In March 2020, the world of fitness and mental wellness changed in a way no one could have foreseen. Televised and local team sports were no longer permitted, gyms closed and exercising once a day, with your household, was the only thing within regulation. We were all advised to ‘Stay at home; stay safe’, and we took it seriously. I, for one, took this message so literally that my families’ daily walk happened when I finished work. For many households, the removal of so much physical and social activity created a pressure cooker of frustration and anxiety.
The easing of restrictions created a huge a behavioural change across the nation and a shift in the way Britain stayed healthy. There was a 92% increase in downloads for the Couch to 5k App, and the emergence of online workout sessions, made famous by Joe Wicks, meant that fitness was back on the agenda.
But what was so special about fitness and exercise at that time? Boredom? A conscious attempt to stay healthy to fight COVID? Weight loss? For me it was a form of escapism, a break from fraught homeschooling, working full time, growing financial pressures and an uncertainty of what was to come in the near and distant future. A 30-minute run or online Zoom sessions were my chance to regain some control where everything seemed frantic. To reset and to make sense of what was going on around me. Yes, I wanted to lose weight and be healthier but that was only a by-product of the mental stability I needed in that moment.
As the dust settled and we dared to talk about normality, the exercise peak plateaued but the lasting impact of COVID was still apparent. It came as no surprise to me that the WHO later reported that the pandemic triggered a global 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. Mental Health services to this day are still dealing with the effects of social isolation and the reduction of key face-to-face services at an incredibly stressful time.
For me, National Fitness Day isn’t about everyone lacing up their running shoes or even joining a Zumba class; but if that’s what you love – amazing! What the last two years has taught us is that we should all take time for ourselves to improve our physical AND mental fitness. Find something that builds your confidence, makes you more determined and more importantly, makes you happy. Whilst physical activity is vitally important, without our mental health in check, we might just be sticking a plaster on a much bigger problem.
Not everyone enjoys physical exercise, but everyone needs to find their head space. If you get your dopamine hit from an intense Fortnite battle, who am I to say that isn’t the right thing for you? With an increased focus on wellbeing in the workplace and the much-needed growth of men’s mental health groups, like Andy’s Men’s Club, mental wellness has finally been given the attention it deserves. At times, our brains can feel like a web browser with 35,985 windows open; there are just too many things going on and too many new bits of information to take in before we eventually just ‘crash’.
An old Chinese Proverb states ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. Today is about making the first step for your own holistic wellness. It is being physically and mentally prepared for what the world throws your way. Make a small change in your lifestyle that will create a big impact in your life. So, if your thing is colouring, cooking, crochet or cross-stitch, today we celebrate you because your mental health is important, and so are you too!