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Let's get physical - it will get you mentally fit this year too

All over the festive season, is bringing you tried and tested ways to help you keep your mental health in fine fettle.

YOU’RE JUST BOUNCING around with great resolutions for your New Year exercise regime, aren’t you?

What’s the plan – run a 10k? Tone up? Keep up in the office 5-a-side for a change?

All good reasons to get active, but exercise is not just about the physical – it will also keep you mentally fit in the coming year.

The science bit

There are three ways in which being physically active has a positive impact on your mental health

- on a biological basis, where stress-busting chemicals called endorphins are released into the system;

- pscyhologically by giving our brains a time out from everyday stress, improving self-esteem and raising satisfaction levels at a goal achieved;

- socially – both if you choose to play a team sport, or even just from getting outside your front door and seeing other people.

In previous studies, people have been asked to rate their mood immediately before and after a physical activity AND after periods of physical inactivity (eg, sitting watching telly). According to Mental Health UK,

Participants reported feeling more content, more awake and calmer directly after being physically active compare to periods of inactivity. They also found that the largest beneficial effect of physical activity on mood (ie, greatest change in mood score) occurred when mood was initally low.

The great thing is this isn’t related to running marathons or completing an ironman or woman competition. Even walking for 10-15 minutes has a positive impact on mood, reducing stress and increasing calm.

When it comes to more serious bouts of depression, while the benefits of physical activity are not universal, exercise certainly does improve symptoms in mild to severe depression (the effect is somewhat weaker in those with clinical depression).

Now when you say active…

Thirty minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Brisk walking is excellent – don’t get too out of breath or too hot, and build it up bit by bit if you are not used to exercise.

The optimum guidelines for adults are as follows:

  • Be active daily – over the week, have carried out 2 and a half hours of moderate exercise (see above), in bouts of ten minutes or more
  • If you are more of a short, sharp shock person, you can get similar benefits from 75 minutes of vigorous intensity across the week (or a mixture of these first two points)
  • Include exercises that improve muscle strength twice a week
  • Try to cut the amount of time you are sitting each day (walk to that person you were about to ring on an internal line; get off the bus a stop early; get up and dance at home when you hear a song you love)

Give me a kickstart

Before you ever get out the door, get inspired by the experience of others like you. The community wellness tips pouring in to the #littlethings forum on are broken down into different sections. This one is about getting active – contributors share their recommendations for what works for them.

Cold out? Rainy? Dark? The hardest part is getting out the door so perhaps just take it one step at a time; tell yourself you are just putting on your runners and standing outside the door. Then tell yourself you’re just walking down the path to the street. Then to the lamppost at the end of the road. You get the idea. GetActiveIreland has challenges for every age group and fitness level to help with motivation.

A great guide to starting any exercise – even though it is written for those who like running – is No Need for Speed: A Beginner’s Guide to the Joy of Running by John Bingham. It’s written by a guy who knows what it’s like to have no motivation, and a lifetime of being sedentary, to becoming a person who incorporates physical activity into his daily life.

His aim is not to teach you how to be a superb athlete – it’s to learn that “the greatest joy in sport comes from not how fast you go or how thin you become, but simply from having the courage to take the first step.”

What suits you? – you don’t need expensive equipment to get going (in fact, it’s better to take that pressure off yourself as it can be disheartening and have a demotivational effect). You also don’t need to join a team, but it can help to rope someone else into meeting you for a walk, a swim, a cycle so that it’s harder to ditch that ‘appointment’.

Know when to take a break – if you are feeling low-energy, moderate exercise will definitely give you a boost, but also know that it’s okay to skip a day. And don’t feel bad if you stray a little from your exercise aims. Every day you start back is a fresh one. Take it from the top.

Finding what works for you

Cavan GAA player Alan O’Mara wrote of his experience with depression in a powerful post published on in May 2013. You can read it here.

Alan O'Mara Alan at the All Ireland Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final in August 2013. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

His experience has also been related through this #LittleThings campaign video:

HSE Ireland / YouTube

In it, he notes:

Thoughts can become feelings if you let them. Now when you’re having a bad day, if it’s a walk, a run, read something, write something – just do something. Most of the times after you’ve actually done something, you go, ‘I actually feel a bit better’.

Speaking to, Alan says that one thing he has learned through his journey of counselling and recovery is that, almost without realising, he will now rate out of 10 how he is feeling on any given day.

“If I am having a day where I am a 3, I think – ‘What are the things I can do to get myself to a  4 or 5′ or if I’m a 6, what can I do to get to a 7 or 8. It’s not like I have a list of three bullet points that I do each time but I have things that work for me,” he says.

One of those things is to hop in the car, drive to Howth and walk the full length of the harbour wall, and feel the fresh sea breeze in his face. By the time he gets home again, he knows it has made a difference.

The important thing is that different things that work for me might not work for you. You have to try something new and be open to what might help – we tend to be creatures of habit, watching the same TV shows, and the same time.

“I’ll sometimes pick up the phone and text a friend and head to the cinema. Going out for something to eat instead of phoning for a takeaway and sitting at home on your own eating it. Going for dinner and having a meaningful conversation – I take something out of that.”

Alan is now Communications and Fundraising Officer with so his personal understanding of how young people can create good mental wellbeing in their lives is invaluable.

“The natural reaction of young males to a bad day can be, ‘Let’s have a couple of pints’. Not saying that I don’t still go for pints but I know that on the days I am feeling low, it won’t help. Talking to people, my colleagues, my family and friends, really strengthened my relationship with them. It takes away that block of emotions you’re carrying around.”


  • And don’t forget, in times of crisis, The Samaritans are on 116 123; 24 hours a day or email

See our series on #LittleThings that can make a big difference to your mental wellbeing in 2015 here>

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