(Featured Image) The writer playing beach soccer in Thailand

Sport’s vital role in staying mind and body fit

We know sport is intrinsically linked to good health, but what can it do for your brain? Hatch’s Max Gay (pictured above) investigates.

If sport keeps you healthy, both through exercise and social engagement, can it keep your mind fit as well? Could it even help treat some of the symptoms of mental health disorders?

A number of international studies have found sport and exercise have positive effects on mental health. One such study by Debbie Lawlor and Stephen Hopker, published in the British Medical Journal, found that a patient’s BDI score (a score indicating the level of depression), dropped by almost a third after physical exercise.

A score of 24 indicates moderate to severe depression. One study subject with this score dropped to 16.7 after exercise, which indicates a mild to moderate depression.

The latest Scottish Health Survey took a wider look at the question of physical exercise and improved mental health and found that among 3200 participants, any form of physical activity was linked to a lower risk of psychological distress.

Bad press

Mental health and sport have never been far apart, but often the connection is cast in a negative light. This was certainly the case in a series of stories around troubled Bulldogs five eighth Kieran Foran, and also England soccer legend, Paul Gascoigne.

Matilda Souter, a former NSW 400m runner, has battled a mental health condition her entire life. She believes physical exercise is vital to her maintaining a positive mood.

“One of the biggest issues with mental health or a comorbidity to any diagnosis, is anxiety,” she told Hatch.

“That’s a lot of racing thoughts and so being able to participate and really immerse yourself in [sport, means] you’re able to lose all of those thoughts.”

Healthline’s guide to the benefits of sport.

Practising mindfulness

Psychotherapy has also been used as a means to power sports stars towards victory.

A number of coaches use the technique of mindfulness to gain a competitive advantage. Mindfulness is defined as the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.

According to psychotherapist Dr Carol Nedov, sport can be used as a form of mindfulness in itself.

“We can actually live mindfully through exercise,” she said.

“The act of going out and having a game and you really participating in that sport; noticing the other players,  noticing your breathing, noticing the temperature change while you’re actually in the event, enjoying the moment – is a mindful way of being.”

What must also be taken into account is the short term benefits of sport to anyone, whether they have been diagnosed or not. Sometimes, according to Dr Nedov, sport and physical exercise can be exactly what is required for someone whose mood has dipped.

“If you’re [feeling] low and you’re noticing that your mood is disturbed throughout the day, a short term benefit could be having some intense exercise,” she said.

Adam Jelfs, a soccer player and Northern Beaches local who suffers from his own mental health issues, has also described soccer’s role in his recovery as vital.

“The ability to have this sport, football, as [something] away from all the other societies and mindsets… you can just get out, run around and have fun with your mates. [It’s] definitely been one of my methods of getting away from it all.”

For Adam, it is not merely the exercise that helps him get through his mental health issues, but the sense of being part of a team.

“I prefer the social aspect of it all,” he said. “The competition isn’t everything when you’ve got a good team.”

Note: If you need help with any mental health issues, you can contact the organisations below. – Max Gay

Beyond Blue Lifeline