A leading Sligo doctor has called for the development of a national clinical programme focussing on the benefits that physical activity can have on our mental health.
Dr Owen Mulligan, Executive Clinical Director of Sligo Mental Health Services says that, while the mental health profession has long recommended activities like walking to help promote mental wellbeing, the lack of a co-ordinated national plan is holding recovery programmes back.
“Within mental health, there are four different clinical programmes at the moment, but the whole area of physical activity, and walking in particular, is probably one area that mental health patients haven’t had the same benefit as other people in the population.
For example, in cardiovascular disease, there have been such improvements over the last thirty years or so, the mental health population haven’t had that benefit. It’s like the train has taken off and they’ve been left behind,” he says.
He adds that there is good scientific evidence available to suggest that not only does physical activity help in improving our mood, but regular walks – either solo or as part of a group – can also help us to build a mental resilience which will stand to us when facing future challenges.
During physical activity, the body releases stress-relieving chemicals called endorphins, and this, in turn, leads to the reduction in stress, anxiety and feelings of depression. And while regular exercise can have a hugely positive impact on people, both physically and mentally, Dr Mulligan says, that for those who have a mental health condition, it can be a real struggle to get motivated in taking those first steps.
“When you look at people who go walking regularly, some people with mental health difficulties don’t engage in it as often, that may be due to habit, but also probably due to (lack of) motivation and some of the core features of mental illness, like lethargy, fatigue and lack of confidence.”
In the absence of a national plan to promote these benefits to the population at large, here in Sligo, clinical teams have, for some time, integrated walking into the mental health recovery plans of clients. The neuroprotective effect that physical activity has on our brains suggests that not only can walking benefit our positive mental wellbeing, there are additional benefits in relation to where and how often we walk.
“There is very strong clinical and neuro-scientific evidence that being exposed to natural environments has a neurologically protective effect on our brains. When we go walking, the evidence is there for reducing stress hormones like cortisol, having a reduction in blood pressure and heart rates, they all have a relaxing effect.”
Therefore, when we get out walking the brain identifies the visual and sensory experience nature offers us and this on its own creates additional positive benefits. So, whether we find ourselves along the shores of Lough Gill at Hazelwood, taking in the coastal walk at Aughris or climbing Knocknarea, not only with the physical activity benefit us, the sensory one will as well.
Dr Mulligan recommends the following as most beneficial for those who want to start walking as part of an overall wellness personal programme. He says that we should get out 3-4 times per week for half an hour at a time. Two of those walks should be as part of a group, and there is also merit in doing a couple of walks on your own.
And with many walking groups heading out daily in Sligo, the door is always open for new members, and you will find a group that will suit your fitness levels as well as your schedule. Start slowly and gradually your fitness levels will improve. A starter guide to get people walking is available on the SligoWalks.ie website.