Linking the divide between physical and mental health
~ by ed jennings ~
Earlier this year I set up a group called Lung Club. It was inspired by a friend, Pete, who tragically lost his dad to suicide earlier this year. Pete raised a huge amount of money for a charity called Sport in Mind which helps those suffering from mental health illnesses through the immense power of sport. In support, I decided to cycle up and down a single 1.1km hill In Sydney 137 times until I reached the height of Everest, also for Sport in Mind. I talked a lot about mental health along the way and decided I wanted to keep the conversation going so started Lung Club – a growing global community of people who want to improve their mental health by “training their lungs”.
OK, first thing’s first, Lung Club is not really a club, there are no joining fees, inductions or initiations. In fact, as long as you want to be, you’re already a member, everyone is. The only thing I ask is that you try and follow our simple guideline, “train the lungs to help the mind”.
It’s a pretty simple concept, by working on our physical health, we also benefit our mental health. The endorphin release we get after exercising, the improvement in sleep quality, the sense of accomplishment and the social connections we form when exercising together are all fairly obvious but nonetheless extremely powerful benefits of “training our lungs”.
However, whilst it may sound obvious, there are many things in life we know are good for us but we don’t necessarily do, and that list just seems to get longer and longer. Practice mindfulness, eat a healthy and wholesome diet, disconnect from technology, connect with people, read more, worry less, floss twice a day, the list goes on. Now if you’re anything like me, sometimes knowing what I should be doing just heightens my anxiety. I’m an overthinker and sometimes my mind feels like a never-ending to-do list, but instead of it being ordered in a nice little notepad, it’s scrambled up like a 1000 piece puzzle. As a result, there’s nothing I like more than simplicity, and for me “training my lungs to help my mind” offers me a way of wrapping up a lot of things I know I should be doing to improve my mental wellbeing into one fairly simple approach.
For me, when I exercise, whether it’s a 5km run or a 200km bike ride, I immediately feel my headspace clearing. The jumbled puzzle doesn’t all start fitting together, it just gets wiped off the table. As the lungs work all I can think of is the melancholic thud of my feet on the pavement or the hum of the wheels spinning. For me it’s a form of mindfulness, whereby I’m not trying to solve my worries, I am just able to see them come and go like passing traffic. There’s plenty of science to back this up, that through exercise we create a state of “optic flow”. This triggers our brains to reduce the fear response whilst releasing dopamine which reduces anxiety. Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist who has some incredible videos on YouTube discussing this.
When training with others the benefits can shift to a different but equally important aspect, connection. As a 30-year-old man, I can confirm firsthand that talking about my mental health is not always easy. I’m a fixer, not a problem sharer. I like finding solutions rather than adding another issue to be solved. But when you’re next to a mate on a bike, sharing the mutual struggle, fighting off the mutual desire to pull over at the next opportunity and lie on the ground, a special connection is formed. Sharing that joint physical struggle makes sharing what’s going on in our minds a whole lot easier.
Lung Club is certainly not just for men, but the stats around suicide in young men make for terrifying reading and it’s the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. On average 43,200 men commit suicide every month, that’s one a minute. For many of these men simply going and doing some exercise may not have been the solution, but a combination of physical training and open conversation around mental health just might have done. To that end, Lung Club is here not only to promote sport and exercise as a tool to improve our mental health, but also as a channel to talk openly and honestly about it. To share stories, to share struggles, to share successes, to share our journeys so that someone else going through their own battle can take solace in the knowledge that they are not alone.
My own experience has shown that the line between physical and mental wellbeing is not always a simple one. A singular focus on your physical health can ultimately be to the detriment of your mental health. I found this out the hard way when training for an Ironman in 2019. My whole year had revolved around getting ready for one big race, huge training weeks meant some big sacrifices, constantly putting the next swim, bike or run at the top my priority list. One month out from the race I took part in the Noosa triathlon as a warm-up and, whilst running full pelt on the sand, I managed to break my foot. This hit me pretty hard and ultimately made me realise that putting too much focus on the finish line will always leave you struggling to come to terms with the reality afterwards. Whether your finish line is brought to you a month early in the form of an X-Ray, or whether it’s after the race standing on the podium, the proceeding period can be difficult to navigate as you struggle to replace that purpose. Physical pursuits such as triathlons can become highly addictive, constantly yearning for that dopamine release triggered from performing at your best. It can make you lose sight of why you are doing it in the first place.
After this, I decided to change things. Now “training my lungs”, is a vital part of my life but I approach it in a different way, or rather a number of different ways. There are the short sharp runs to just breathe and sweat and feel alive, there are the long solo bike rides to think about nothing and everything all at the same time. There are the rides with mates to laugh and talk and drink coffee and help each other to the finish, there are the swims where one minute you’re in complete awe of the ocean’s beauty and then the next you’re terrified of a piece of seaweed.
Every time we put on our trainers, jump on the bike, or go for a swim, we have an opportunity to leave the noise in our heads behind. Whether it’s for 30 minutes or for 3 hours it’s time to give your mind space, space that’s not always too easy to come by these days.
Train your lungs and help your mind.
You can check out Lung Club on Instagram @Lung_Club
If you want to discuss anything further or get involved drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org