Sir Chris Hoy understands exercise’s importance for mental health, and so should everyone – Billy Watson

Gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy of Great Britain celebrates during the London 2012 Olympic Games (Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy of Great Britain celebrates during the London 2012 Olympic Games (Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
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Ten years ago, Scottish Association for Mental Health ambassador Sir Chris Hoy helped us to launch our first ever national programme in physical activity and sport, Get Active. And earlier this month, Sir Chris joined us to mark World Mental Health Day by announcing a new partnership between SAMH and sportscotland.

The physical health benefits of being active have long been publicised – it’s good for our heart, our lungs, our muscles. These days, we’re increasingly aware of the mental health benefits too.

Exercise, whether it’s running a marathon or practising some simple yoga stretches, releases chemicals that can boost our mood; but the benefits extend far beyond that. People have told us that it helps them to sleep better, improves their confidence and self-esteem, and helps them to be better socially connected. Yet we also know that when someone is experiencing a mental health problem, it can be harder than ever to take the first steps to becoming more active.

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Sir Chris understands all too well the impact that physical activity has on mental health. He recognises how his own mood and wellbeing can be affected if he doesn’t get out on his bike regularly; and during the low points in his sporting career, it was cycling that gave him the strength to keep going.

A lot has changed in ten years, and it’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to work with so many sporting organisations, from grassroots clubs to elite bodies, using their collective power to break down the barriers to participation that all too often exist for people with mental health problems.

Walking football, roller derby, yoga

Our work with leisure trusts through our Active Living Becomes Achievable (Alba) programme has provided free, one-to-one support to individuals with lived experience of mental health problems. Participants told us the programme helped give them more focus and motivation to continue exercising. Scotland’s Mental Health Charter for Physical Activity and Sport has seen organisations across the country commit to ensuring that physical activity is inclusive and accessible to all.

The signatories, who cover a wide range of activities including yoga, walking football, roller derby, and tennis, have taken on a number of actions including introducing buddy schemes for new members, and training coaches in mental health awareness. Finally, our work with football clubs Hearts and Hibs has seen the development of The Changing Room programme, which sees men in their middle years coming together through their football community to help tackle mental health. The programme has been life-saving for many who have found a network of people that they can really open up to.

The new partnership with sportscotland will build on all of this existing work, and on our work in schools across Scotland, by training all 400 of sportscotland’s active schools coordinators in mental health. By learning practical ways of monitoring and managing mental health, we hope to see this initiative help the next generation of young people. There’s always a buzz about talking around World Mental Health Day. And we agree that talking is hugely important – but listening is equally, if not more, important. It has to be a two-way conversation, and it has to be happening all year round, not just on one day. That is what we hope this new partnership will open up.

Billy Watson is chief executive of SAMH