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Let’s get physical – Mental Health Awareness & Walk to Work Week

I’ll begin with a case study. My own

I’ve always been aware of how physical activity improves my mood and lowers my stress but it wasn’t until recently, when the ability to run and jump was temporarily taken away from me that I realised just how important it is. I’m the type of person who only considers exercise to be exercise if, while I’m doing it I want to die, and after completing it, I’m unable to move.

Walking? Bah, walking isn’t exercise; it’s just a cheap way of getting from A to B. So going into hospital for a week and having surgery that left me unable to exercise for the next two weeks was far scarier than the operation itself. But I soon adapted to the lazy institutionalised lifestyle that I adopted while in hospital and when I came out was reluctant to really do anything other than sit and feel sorry for myself and my forced inability to exercise. But then the day after my release I got a phone call telling me that a parcel had been delivered to my old address, 3.5 miles from where I currently live.

I wanted the parcel but I’m too cheap to spend the £2.50 that it would take to get me there and back on the bus. Looks like I would be walking. It was tiring, it was painful but for the first time in over a week I felt like myself again. It made me realise that exercise is all relative. For someone who doesn’t do a lot, just a 10 minute walk can make a difference and it doesn’t matter what the exercise is. So long as there is movement, there will be benefits both to your physical and mental state. That walk improved my mood, it washed off the hospital cobwebs and made me realise that even though I couldn’t do my usual intense exercise I could still feel and enjoy the benefits that a simple walk can bring.

Now it’s time for my colleagues to feel those benefits. For the week beginning 13th May, mruk followed the advice of the mental health foundation by getting physical and this is what we did:

Monday
There is a definite Monday feeling in the air. Enthusiasm is low, a few people chose to walk to work rather than relinquishing to the easy pull of public transport but there were definitely fewer walking than signed up on Friday.  However, the few that did walk made up for the rest of us unindustrious lot. Specific congratulations go to Chris who walked his feet raw completing 8 of the 11 miles between his home and the office. Monday was also the first day of Kate’s walking to work week. She had her reservations, mainly to do with time and how she will manage to spare the extra hour that walking takes but this was soon forgotten when she found other things to think about “there’s a massive hill between A and B that I didn’t know about. And nowhere to get coffee until I’m an hour into the journey (first-world problems, eh?).”

Tuesday
After the general lack of enthusiasm yesterday something drastic needed to be done. Today’s activities took a lot of persuasion but in the end, it was worth it. Pre-empting that the weather would be terrible and that bad weather would be an excuse used by too many not to get involved, we brought the lunchtime activity indoors. A brave few were practically dragged kicking and screaming into the boardroom still dressed in their work gear but enthusiasm quickly surfaced thanks to Mr Motivator who lives up to his name. It wasn’t long before we were happily doing the funky chicken and the Motivator runway walk and by the end we were all agreeing that our Motivator sessions should become a weekly occurrence.

Kate’s enthusiasm hasn’t needed elevating today. She keenly tackled her walk and made a discovery that might make her keep this new activity up. “The people I see at the start of my journey, before 7am, look more relaxed and happier than the commuters I see as I get towards work at 8, who all look a lot grimmer” 

Wednesday
It’s Wednesday. That means its day three. That means day three blues. We cannot let them beat us, we need to combat them by making today’s activity as enjoyable as possible. But the activity today is walking, walking along a busy road from a train station to the office. How to make it more fun? By making it a social affair. There is extensive research that shows that good social relationships and networks promote and are a protective factor for wellbeing and mental health (1) so we arranged for people to meet up either at Clapham Junction, Victoria or Balham and walk the rest of journey with colleagues (about 35 minute journeys). Chris’s 8 miles on Monday was certainly impressive but our short walk today is not to be mocked as it has been found that walking for 10–15 minutes is sufficient to have an impact on mood states (2).

The exercise bug is spreading. I was dragged into the office today of a very excited colleague, my employer to be more specific, who was singing the praises of an app called Strava that he has just downloaded. Strava is an app that tracks your movement, allowing you to monitor your activity and, if you like that sort of thing, to compete with yourself or others. This got me thinking about behavioural economics and how by simply keeping track of what we are doing we are bringing something that is rarely considered into consciousness. Then, by inserting an element of competition and getting the feeling that comes from succeeding (either against yourself or another), accompanied by the conscious realisation that we are human beings who need to move, this can be incentive enough to make us change our behaviour and live a more active lifestyle. There is a lot to be said for getting out and being at one with nature but technology certainly has a place in the modern world of activity.

Kate too has been reflecting on the day 3 blues and behavioural economics and how gamification, much like Strava, can help us get over them and find the motivation to keep on going. “But! I remembered that if I logged some hours on my Walk to Work Week dashboard, I’d get another picture of a muffin, and I was marching up that hill before you could say ‘gamification’”

Thursday
We made it past day three and motivation is at an all-time high. At lunchtime the office split up; One group for a bit of indoor competition and the other for some fun in the sun. I chose the outside option because compared to exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments has been associated with greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy (3). We’re also now getting towards the end of the week when stress can start to mount and with the type of work that we do here; having to make deadlines and please clients, stress can be a real problem. So today seemed like the perfect day for hitting a shuttlecock or thwacking a shinty ball at colleagues. Stress is certainly something that can be combatted by exercise as studies on adults who are employed have found that highly active individuals tend to have lower stress rates compared to low active individuals (4, 5).

Kate also recognises how being outside rather than cooped up on a train can make for a good start to what would normally be a pretty stressful day “Well, I discovered that gazing across a dewy, empty common on a spring morning makes a girl realise how lucky she is”

Friday
Last day of our exercising week and I’m happy to say that there is not a sense of relief radiating around the office. Congratulations today go to Sandria who set off from her house at 6.10 and walked 9.3 miles to work. I’m impressed! Even Kate, who at the beginning of the week was cursing having to waste precious hours of her day walking has grown fond of her daily exercise “In an amazingly short space of time, the walking thing has just became normal. And especially after the sunny gorgeousness that was yesterday, I found myself looking forward to today’s walk, and sorry that it was all going to be over at the end”. There was a clear Friday feeling in the air as the biggest group so far ventured out into Battersea Park for a walk along the lake and through the trails. Perhaps this motivation resulted from the brain food bought into the office by a colleague. Foods all specifically selected for their mood enhancing qualities. It’s important to remember that while exercise is a great way to enhance health and wellbeing it is not the only way, and by combining exercise, being outside, doing activities socially and eating well, our wellbeing will be greatly improved. My discovery today is that in the trails of Battersea Park, if you put your fingers in your ears and just look at the mud and trees around, you can almost convince yourself that you are in the countryside. Not that we need to be, London, we have discovered has plenty of opportunities to exercise outside and if the weather should be typically English just move some furniture around, stick on DVD and do the funky chicken.

  1. Heaney CA & Israel BA (2008). Social networks and social support. In: Glanz K, Rimer BK, Viswanath K, editors. Health behavior and health education: theory, research, and practice. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 189-210.
  2. VanLanduyt LM & Petruzzello SJ (2000). Walking in (affective) circles: Can short walks enhance affect? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 23(3) p. 245-75.10
  3. Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J & Depledge MH (2011). Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(5) p. 1761-72.65.
  4. Aldana SG, Sutton LD, Jacobson BH & Quirk MG (1996). Relationships between leisure time physical activity and perceived stress. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 82(1) p. 315-21.
  5. Kouvonen A, Kivimaki M, Elovainio M, Virtanen M, Linna A & Vahtera J (2005). Job strain and leisure-time physical activity in female and male public sector employees. Preventive Medicine, 41(2) p. 532-9.16.

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