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Exercising for better mental health

Emma shares her story of how she went from couch potato to jogging three times a week and the positive impact it has had on her mental health.


Ask any of my friends and they will tell you I am the least sporty person you’re ever likely to meet. At school I would always trail behind everyone else, was always last to be picked for teams, and I would always try to skip PE with any flimsy excuse whenever I could.

I’m in my mid (late?) twenties now, and there have been brief glimpses in my life where I’ve tried to ‘get fit’. I tried the occasional home workout, only to collapse when I found it too hard or boring; I tried to do 30 days of yoga but somehow never got past day three; and then there was that year I told everyone I was ‘going to join a dance class’ but I got overwhelmed by the options and ended up doing nothing.

When lockdown hit, I got into the same mindset of ‘oh I’ll spend all this new free time getting fit’, and then instead I found myself glued to my sofa watching Netflix while eating boxes of chocolates. (And you know what, that’s pretty great too - no judgement here if you’re doing the same).

At some point though, I grew tired of saying ‘I really should do some exercise’. It’s a cliché but I heard someone say ‘if you’re too scared to do it, do it scared’, and that made something in my brain click. Because I WAS scared. I was scared of trying, I was scared of being bad at something, and I was scared of looking silly.

So the same day I heard that mantra, I put my trainers on, I downloaded the NHS Couch to 5k app, and I went outside before I had time to think about what I was doing.

At first I could barely remember how to walk, let alone run. I was feeling self-conscious, but I put some power tunes on and tried to focus on the path ahead. And you know what - I did it! It was hard, but at the end, I felt so proud of myself for getting out there and trying.

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It has boosted my confidence like very little else has done before.

The NHS Couch to 5k app is great because every run feels achievable. It breaks down the big goals into small, bitesize ones and gradually builds you up until, before you know it, you’re accomplishing more than you may have thought possible.

At the beginning it asks you to write down your motivation for starting, and I wrote ‘for my mental health’. As I progressed through the weeks, I noticed after every run that I felt lighter, more energised, focused and - rare for me - proud of myself. It has boosted my confidence like very little else has done before.

I’ve now completed the Couch to 5k programme and am continuing with their graduate series. I may be the slowest runner out there, it may have taken me twelve weeks instead of nine, and I may not have reached 5k yet, but I can now run for 30 minutes straight, which a few months ago was unimaginable, and I feel fitter and stronger, both physically and mentally.

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We are all capable of so much more than we imagine.

From this experience I’ve learnt the importance of breaking down big goals into small, achievable chunks; I’ve become better at forgiving myself when things don’t go right and at celebrating myself when things do; I’ve learnt to stop caring about what others might potentially think (really - they don’t care!) and I’ve embraced the joy and freedom of going at my own pace; and importantly, I’ve learnt to stop underestimating myself. We are all capable of so much more than we imagine.

I think it should be less about trying to ‘get fit’ and more about trying to ‘find your fit’ - for me, it was jogging, for you it could be dancing, yoga, pilates, walking the dog, HIIT sessions, cycling...experiment until you find your fit, but whatever you do, keep it small, achievable, and most importantly, fun.