It is now widely acknowledged that exercise can be helpful as a way to manage mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Doctors can now prescribe exercise, in the first instance, when presented with symptoms of these disorders.
The impact of exercise on mental health conditions is generally considered to be due to the increase in levels of the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals, endorphins. However, other theories do exist, including the notion that, during physical exertion, the muscles produce an enzyme that purges the blood of a substance which accumulates during stress. No conclusive evidence exists, but whether it is because of something physiological, the boost to self-esteem, the sense of achievement, or simply the distraction from those dark thoughts and feelings, most people who experience these conditions will agree that exercise goes some way to alleviating stress and some symptoms of depression.
For me, running was hugely helpful in coping with generalised anxiety disorder and depression, which have been part of my life for some years. It was my first visit to the doctors that brought home to me how keeping active was vital to my mental wellbeing. ‘Have you tried exercise?’ my doctor asked. With very little thought and a slightly dismissive reaction, I assured her that I was a fit and active twenty-something. But the realisation began to dawn on me that, although I was involved in numerous sports as a teenager and into my early twenties, my current lifestyle had dismissed any physically active pursuits other than picking up a guitar or going for the occasional walk. So, I began to reintroduce them. Still hugely socially anxious, meeting new people was fairly terrifying, so team sports were out of the question. So, once I was able to summon up the motivation, I started running as a means to managing my mental health. For me, it really was a case of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’.
Promoting a more active lifestyle to sufferers of depression can have numerous benefits, not least encouraging social interaction and generally getting out and about, at times when the motivation to do so is so hard to come by. Mischief La-Bas, a highly innovative theatre company that seeks to directly engage with people by ‘taking themselves to their audience’ rather than vice versa, have an ethos and approach perfectly suited to tackling the stigma that still surrounds mental ill-health. And in their ‘Take the Black Dog Out on a Walk Tour’ they do just that. Des and Liz Mahagow, two running enthusiasts and black dog walkers are touring the nation, replete with day-glo running gear and black dog in tow. Represented by a stuffed toy dog on this occasion, the ‘black dog’ has long been an effective euphemism for depression, and here it serves as the perfect counterweight to Des and Liz’s colourful and zany personas.
Far from preaching about exercise, however, the whole endeavor is more symbolic; an endorsement to put our mental health problems out there in the open, display them for discussion and share each other’s experiences, all with the hope that this airing of our struggles in public can challenge those washed-out stigmas that still cause many sufferers to stuff our problems down into the sock drawer or hide them away at the back of our closets.
Many similar schemes exist, which seek to combine promoting a more active lifestyle with a forum for dialogue about mental health issues. Mental health awareness ‘community walks’ have begun to spring up all over the country, providing networks for people to chat, share or just act as a visible show of solidarity while you stretch your legs.
Des and Liz’s presence at this year’s Festival is hugely inspiring. They are symbolic standard bearers, adorned in bright sportswear, exuding positivity with wide infectious smiles; they are the visual antithesis of the ‘black dog’. Yet at the same time, they can be seen as champions of this complex beast. Many who live with the ‘black dog’ will tell you that they wouldn’t live without some of its characteristics: introspection, a constantly questioning impulse, or a sparring partner for their creativity. But, like all dogs, it needs constant exercise, room to breathe and frequent dialogue. Only then will the black dog be easier to live with.
Written by Tom Grayson
Follow Des and Liz's Take the Black Dog Out on a Walk Tour through their Twitter page and at Festival events across the country until Sat 31 Oct.