How exercise and meditation help my mental health

Criodán has been out cycling and running recently and finds he has more energy and is sleeping better.

Written by Criodan O'Murchu


A difficult year 

The academic year of 2017/18 was one of the most difficult of my life. I have battled depression for a couple of years, but these past two semesters really tested me. My attendance in college was less than twenty percent for the entire year and it was a miracle that I passed all my exams to progress to third year. Before second year I had been extremely sporty and outgoing, but that all came to a stop.

I realised as we were coming into summer that I had an opportunity to start getting active again. I needed to get back into things, just like I had before.

Getting active again

Inspired by a friend who had completed a similar cycle, I wanted to do something different, more than ordinary. I was going to attempt to cycle solo from Malin Head to Mizen Head to raise funds for I had five weeks to train for it. I focused on cardio, mainly running and cycling long distance. It was surreal to get out again. I prefer training alone personally. It’s just me and the road ahead. Your head clears. From wondering about the bills you have to pay or that assignment you have due, you start focusing on your breath, your heart rate and the solid tunes you have on Spotify.  

For me, the benefits of exercise are no joke. A ‘runners’ high’ as I often hear it referred to, is the time after completing vigorous exercise where you can feels elated, in good spirits and happy. It’s an amazing moment to clear your head of doubt, or sadness, or stress. For a little while, your head is empty.

A time to clear your mind

During my cycle, this was one of the most enjoyable parts. My mother asked me at one stage, “What do you think about when you’re on the bike for hours on end?” “Almost nothing” I replied. It was incredible. I worried I would be bored but you end up taking in the scenery, watching your pacing and breathing. Having a clear headspace, without stress or worries is incredibly relieving.

I think it is important to remove ourselves from the busy and constantly stimulated lives we live nowadays. A break from television, the news, SnapChat notifications, the list goes on, is good for your head and your thumbs!

Helps your sleep

On top of clearing your head and giving your mind some well earned rest, exercise can also help increase your energy levels. It can help with regulating your sleep patterns. I had days where I spent almost 14 hours in bed. I could sleep 12 hours and not have the energy to get up and shower. It was debilitating. Slowly, as I started walking and running again, I noticed that my sleep quality improved. I was able to make a regular bedtime and I could physically get up in the mornings. A regular/routine bedtime is really underrated. Make sure you get enough sleep (7-10 hours for me) and try to keep your bed/bedroom just for sleeping! The extra energy is a surreal feeling. Being able to keep going through the day, to get your work or study done and not feel exhausted is fantastic. An evening jog or cycle can more than easily fit into your schedule as you won’t be as tired – a perfect loop!

Any mild weather is a perfect opportunity to get outside and start some basic exercise, if you’ve never done any before. Walking and just getting outside in the fresh air is amazing for your headspace as well as your physical health. Getting your heart pumping a little bit faster and breathing a little bit heavier is good. It means you’re working. If you’re in university, check out the clubs on offer. They cater for everyone, including total beginners. As well as that, they’re a great way to meet people with similar interests to yourself. If these options aren’t available, have a look online or on Facebook for group meet-ups for running, cycling, walking, e.t.c. Again, it’s a fantastic way to meet people and get outside and do something active.

Building your self-esteem

For me, exercise can also be used as a tool to increase my self-esteem. It begins with the runners’ high, but there are many times when the success of my efforts makes you feel good about myself. Say you ran your first 5K or jogged a mile or walked to the end of the street and weren’t winded – these are all great success stories! You’ll remember them and feel good about them. You’ll want to share them with those around you. Don’t be afraid to push yourself sometimes and try something new. You are only in competition with yourself and what you were able to do the last day.

On top of exercise, I cannot stress the benefits of meditation enough. To take a few minutes of each day and just try and think of nothing is a very liberating experience. I use and would recommend the app Headspace. It has different type of meditation lessons as well as a great beginners session. Learning to take time for yourself and to “stop thinking” is very relaxing and can also help you to fall asleep.

Exercise and meditation are powerful tools that can be used to help you in a variety of ways. A little is better than none and bit by bit it all adds up. Healthy body, healthy mind, happy life.   

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