This brilliant guest post with a lesson for us all was written by Katie Brown, an innovator in health, well-being and arts services.
I am an extreme exerciser. I have in my time, surfed for the first time on overhead waves with experienced surfers (I was rubbish and had no idea I was on big waves – they neglected to tell me). I’ve canyoned then abseiled down a waterfall. I’ve also scrambled up Crib Goch and run back down the other side of it. And just over 2 years ago I agreed to cycle the Spanish mountains for charity despite not having cycled for 20 years.
I have a back ground in mental health and wellbeing. I’m not a psychiatrist or a GP. In fact what I do is work with health professionals and the people who use their services to identify problems in the system, and then with designers, coders and entrepreneurs to turn these into solutions and create new fully funded health care services from them. It means I get to hear a lot of perspectives: medical and research, self-management (i.e. the patients themselves), and family and friends’ thoughts and feelings on the people they know the best. I’m interested in knowing what the truth is for everyone in the health journeys they (co)-manage.
From this, I’ve developed my own picture for solutions to health and wellbeing:
One part medical,
One part consistency,
One part meaningfulness,
One part tenacity.
There is a current raft of research data suggesting exercise such as running is not necessarily healthful nor does it offer a suitable intervention for individuals needing primary health care treatment for (oft) longer terms conditions such as depression.
I’ve looked through the framework of this research and one key element that I can’t attribute is the issue of meaningfulness. A specific term for this when applied from a psychological standpoint to health interventions is Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of being fully focused and aware in the present moment, allowing thoughts and sensations to come and go without becoming involved with them or trying to avoid them. It’s about accepting things as they are in the moment, not judging your experience or trying to change it. If you apply this to running, particularly outdoors, it is about taking note of the surroundings, of contemplating the sounds, the smells, and the sensations of moving over earth, connected and aware. It is primarily about breathing and being present with oneself.
My experience of spending 8 hours a day in a bike saddle in 40-degree heat over lolloping hills astride the beckoning mountains taught me something of the power of mindfulness. When I began I learnt that my pattern of thought had the biggest impact on what was possible for my body. The thoughts I chose to ruminate on gained prominence. If I thought about how hot it was or how far I had to go then it was hot and I had far to go. When I noticed the fields of sunflowers, the sky’s hue and the sounds of the cicadas, I forgot time and heat. I forgot to be anxious about whether I could do what I was doing. I forgot to tense my breathing. In short, I enjoyed it.
And it’s not that I didn’t need motivation every day. I didn’t spring out of bed whooping and hollering at the next 100k to be done. No. I had Andy, my friend and an RAF officer ordering my grumbling ass up and out every day. But I did provide the mindfulness techniques. On the day that he found the challenge difficult, too hot and sad at the ending of it, it was my pointing out the focus that helped him make the decision to savour that day, the sights, the sounds and achievement that made that day’s work a good day’s work.
Being grounded in my own experience of exercise and my near 20 years career surrounded by people working hard at improving mental health and wellbeing of themselves, others and community makes it hard not to notice what works in action.
Whilst I note many varying aspects of health in research in relation to exercise and do not suggest any should be undertaken without the support of health care professionals where appropriate, I do advocate the role of being present and using mindful techniques in exercise – AND in being outdoors wherever possible. Try it, see what you think. Can’t hurt can it?
Some resources and further reading:
Katie Brown is an entrepreneur and health innovator with an extensive track record in creating and managing meaningful health, wellbeing & arts services.
Right now she’s riding a motorbike and wondering if she can get away with calling that exercise.