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Some things I do to stay sane: Sports and mental health

I hate meditation. It’s impossible for me to empty my brain. Yoga does nothing for me. I can’t get the hang of it and I just end up thinking about food. But, like a lot of people, I really need to clear my head, to focus and forget about life and it’s worries. And as much as we know physical exercise is beneficial to mental health, I never found one I liked. I’m not a great runner, I don’t like team sports, or team anything. I just always thought I didn’t like sports. Or so I believed. I just hadn’t found one that was right for me.

There’s so much written on the benefits of exercise for mental health. For me, making my body tired makes my head shut up, I sleep better and feel better. I’m not an expert, and I don’t pretend to be. What I will tell you is what works for me. If it works for you then great, if not try something else!


I was always brought up to appreciate fresh air and the outdoors, and I’ve always enjoyed hiking. Even if I seemed to be hiking in Mordor and I was wet, cold and miserable (then you justify the cake you’ll be eating later and to be honest so much of life is about cake). But when I came to Iceland a couple of years ago to go hiking I was a bit afraid of how I could live with being in my own head all day just walking around. But, I found that it actually works really well. Sometimes I stick on my headphones and listen to music. I have happy songs, the ones that make me drag myself up steep hills when I don’t want to, the ones that make me speed up. I have friends who listen to podcasts, audiobooks or TED Talks. Whatever works for you. And sometimes I don’t listen to anything and just work things out in my head, looking at beautiful scenery, taking photos and enjoying being away from people. Or go in a group if that works for you. But it is satisfying to look at a map and see where you started and how far you came. And that works for me.


Ok, archery is more mental than physical and you’re never going to end up physically exhausted from it, at least I don’t, even though I might have tired arms. But, it does teach you to focus and to go into a second world, because if you don’t then God knows where your arrows will go. In part, I learnt that focus from people in my club in Dublin, Liffey Archers. Because if you can shoot with a gang of twenty behind you laughing, singing, slagging you, doing a running commentary, generally messing and trying to make you laugh then you can shoot anywhere. It’s one of those sports that’s more fun with other people but you can still do alone. Think like you’re Merida from Brave, or Katniss Everdeen, or you’re an elf shooting orcs – whatever makes you feel cool. Plus you feel like a total badass when you get it right and you can try cool things like shooting on horseback and pretend you’re a Mongol or something and that’s always fun. And if you’re not having fun then why are you doing it.

Climbing and bouldering

I got into climbing after meeting these crazy guys in Greenland, and I’ve done it from time to time since, though I’ve never been great at it, I’ve always had fun. But there has been one particular time that I really felt the benefit of dragging yourself up walls and not just physically. A few years ago I was having a rough time and on my way to a rope climbing course, I had something like a full out panic attack. I’m not totally sure because I had never had it before nor since but I couldn’t breathe and I was freaking out. But I had to go. And I had to concentrate. I had to clear my mind or in the best case scenario I could have killed myself. There were a lot of worst case scenarios. And instead of going home and having a crap evening I achieved something. Now I went last week in Reykjavík and I felt rubbish. I’ve started back training at the gym but I don’t have the strength I once had. Yet. But I did get to the top in a couple of routes. I figured out some routes, and some are for another day. And more importantly, I had fun.

The gym and circuit training

I know some people hate the gym. And when I thought it was about cross-trainers, spandex and treadmills (which I don’t understand when there’s outside to be walking in, unless you do “push the treadmill” – a killer but excellent), I didn’t either. But then I discovered bootcamps, kettlebells, circuits and weights. I don’t like long runs. After a skydiving accident, I get certain injuries very easily and also I get bored. But in circuits you never do anything for very long. So I might hate walking lunges but I only have to do so many and then I can do something else. It just works with my easily bored brain. And the idea of pick up heavy thing, put down heavy thing is pretty simple. And if you keep doing that you can pick up and put down heavier things. And then you feel like you’re achieving something. And when you feel like you have no control over anything in life but at least you can decide about that stupid heavy thing then that’s a little victory. And if you’re dead dog tired then you will sleep so much better.

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