• Claire Higgins

Sport, Exercise & Physical Activity for Mental Health & Wellbeing

Recently, I completed a Masters of Science degree in Exercise and Sport Psychology. While a part of me chose to do this from a place of wanting to understand how athletes could perform better in competitive environments, another part was curious about the links between sport, exercise, physical activity, mental health, and wellbeing.

A Sporty Childhood

My own journey through this terrain began as a child. I grew up in a family that valued sport and physical activity. Like myself, my mother had been a competitive child swimmer. She later took up running and squash, competing in both. As a child, I would watch her from the sidelines. My strong mother, racing towards the finishing line in a relay race through the desert mountains. My capable mother, the captain of the men's squash team. Then there were the athletes who passed through our home. Elite tennis players and squash players. And my mother's nursing work at rugby tournaments, patching broken bodies back together.

Looking back, what strikes me most about these memories is that after working long shifts on her feet as a nurse by day, my mother could also muster the energy to show up after work for her more active hobbies. She hadn't had an easy start in life and sport seemed to give her the relief she needed to stay balanced and sane. Or maybe it was her competitive drive to always do her best. Perhaps it connected her with herself and others, and gave her focus and direction. In any case, it inspired myself and my middle sister to follow in her footsteps.

Sport was very much a part of our family life but being right in the thick of it, I never noticed just how present it was. At least I didn't until after I left home. By then, I was a former competitive swimmer and martial arts athlete on her way to earning a black belt. I had excelled in athletics, dabbled in squash and tennis, enjoyed ski-ing trips with school, tried jet ski-ing, water ski-ing, and water polo, and loved playing ping pong and crazy golf with my father, who wasn't quite as sporty. I was lucky to grow up in an environment that offered these activities and to come from a family that was able to support them. It was a life of privilege and one I took for granted until those privileges were gone. Years would pass before I would finally understand.

The Turbulent Twenties

At university, I continued to train in martial arts, earning my first black belt at the age of twenty two. But despite that gruelling achievement, which involved up to ten hours of training a week, the presence of sport, physical activity and exercise in my life was beginning to diminish. My once athletic body had lost significant weight during my teenage years and, as I moved from academia into humanitarian work overseas, the very act of moving intensely or for a competitive purpose almost ground to a halt. All my energy was now taken up with work. Even non-athletic hobbies fell by the wayside.

During this period of moving between areas of conflict, violence, and trauma for work, with regular visits to prisons and refugee camps, I was also dealing with high levels of stress in my personal life. A long-distance relationship and marriage had gradually turned violent, triggering memories of a teenage trauma that I soon realised had sparked my lack of appetite and subsequent weight loss in my teenage years. That was the state in which I had trained for my first black belt and only sheer determination and a positive training environment saw me through. By my mid-twenties, my weight was beginning to creep back up and my fitness levels were starting to decline.

Fortunately, during that same decade of elevated stress, I took up yoga. I didn't understand much to begin with other than it helped me to relax and sleep better at night, especially after visits to political prisoners who had been tortured. I started in a small hotel studio in Jerusalem with a hippy-like Israeli teacher called Zohar and later continued at a lifestyle gym in Beirut with a more glamorous Lebanese teacher who had quit her former job in marketing in order to teach.

I also took up Pilates, returned to swimming, and continued my martial arts training after work on the other side of Beirut with Druze practitioners in a dusty basement dojo. But it was yoga that took an increasing hold. When I finally nailed a headstand without any support, I began to wonder how much further I could go in my quest to move through stress and trauma, and transition into a happier world beyond. Could yoga be the key? Or was a better path through fitness and martial arts?

The Transformative Thirties

Over the next decade, I broke out of the unhappy marriage and went through a two-year process of separation and divorce. During the early days of that period, restorative yoga became an energetic lifeline. I had little energy for anything other than lying flat on the floor with my legs up the wardrobe. I also trained to teach ashtanga yoga and later, specialised in restorative and more gentle women's yoga, which I later taught on mission after work. When my energy levels finally lifted post-divorce, I stepped up my martial arts training and earned a second degree black belt. I also took up other martial arts, competed in one of them, and trained as a self-defence instructor.

The latter, training as a self-defence instructor, was prompted by my own recovery from violence and witnessing violence in my work. I wanted to put those memories to rest and teach others the protective skills I wished I had long ago learned. Martial arts had built my character and fed a competitive streak but it hadn't taught me real-life self-defence, particularly on the relationship front. Nor had it taught me how to deal with violent crime. On graduation, I went on to teach and continue to enjoy teaching self-defence today with Combat Academy UK.

But all this was only the tip of the iceberg. After years of studying movement, and teaching yoga on mission to burned out aid workers, I wanted to learn more. I knew that movement was making a positive difference to my mental health and wellbeing, and I wanted to know why and how to pass that knowledge on to others who may also be struggling with the inevitable challenges and disasters of life.

First, I trained as a health coach. Later, I trained as a professional coach, ran an executive coaching practice for four years, and then studied for a diploma in Positive Psychology. It was then that I learned that my top strengths included curiosity and love of learning. It explained why I wasn't satisfied letting others lead the way in my own journey through mental health and wellbeing. The few therapists and coaches I had worked with along the way to navigate stress and trauma had been insightful and much appreciated but deep down, I wanted to be able to do what they did for myself. I wanted to lead my own way and then pass that leadership skill on to others.

The (Mentally) Fitter Forties

At the age of forty, right before starting my MSc in Exercise and Sport Psychology, I finally qualified as a fitness instructor and personal trainer. This had been something of a life-long dream that I honestly never expected to achieve. My vision of those in the fitness industry was slightly intimidating based on my own reference points of those who had previously trained me, not to mention air-brushed images. I may have been relatively fit, perhaps fitter than average, but the stresses and strains of life had also taken a toll on my body. Fitness beyond burnout was now a real-life concern.

I guess you could say I battled tooth and nail to get and stay fit amidst the inevitable challenges and setbacks of real life. I still do at times as I now run one business and help manage two others. Because of that, I've had to search for a path of more ease. For years, I've turned to sport, exercise, and physical activity for mental health and wellbeing support as well as outlets for competition and performance. I haven't always known this is what I was doing and I haven't always gotten it right. But I've certainly learned a lot along the way that I hope to be able to pass on.

This post has been a personal summary of what led me to find some answers to improving mental health and wellbeing. Over the coming days and weeks, I'll be sharing the research and science behind what I've learned on this path so that you can have the information you need to start making positive changes for yourself. If you're already on this path, I hope you will find the evidence to back up what you may already know or feel inspired to explore more of this topic for yourself. And if you are already working in this field, I hope these posts inspire us to connect and share lessons learned.

Whether you are new to exercise and physical activity or you are a seasoned fitness practitioner, military veteran, or elite athlete, there will be something in this series on "Exercise & Physical Activity for Mental Health & Wellbeing" that will hopefully be of benefit to where you are right now. If we're not already connected on social media, I invite you to follow my future posts on this topic on LinkedIn here.

About Inner Athletics

Inner Athletics is a research, coaching, and training company based in the UK. Our purpose is to bring research-driven and evidence-based interventions and support strategies on performance, stress, and recovery to athletes, coaches, and executives.

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For those of you who are working (or plan to work) in health, fitness, sport, coaching, training, or any other related domain, I invite you to check out an upcoming course I'll be leading with a colleague of mine at the Positive Psychology Network on Train the Trainer (ToT) Mental Health First Aid and Wellbeing. This course will touch on exercise and physical activity and so much more. You'll learn how to identify mental health risks, create psychologically safe spaces at work, and teach others to harness their personal strengths to create positive wellbeing strategies for themselves.

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