Running stress away…the benefits of exercise

In this article, Rachael – an avid exercise enthusiast, tells us about some of the proven benefits of regular exercise and how she hopes to help young refugees by sharing her passion with them.

If there’s one thing that keeps me focussed and improves my mood, it’s exercise. I practise yoga most days, love a long morning run and enjoy trying new forms of exercise whenever I can.

But it hasn’t always been this way. I hated sports at school, I loathed the annual cross country run and constantly found excuses to skip athletics and swimming. It was only when I left school and exercise wasn’t an obligation that I realised how beneficial, life-affirming and downright fun it could be.

So when I learnt that I would be moving to Greece to assist in refugee shelters, I was very keen to share my enthusiasm for exercise with the migrants, and to explore the benefits that exercise can bring to this marginalised and vulnerable group.

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health – it goes without saying that it strengthens muscles and improves cardiovascular function. One obvious benefit of focusing on sports and exercise with refugees is helping to maintain physical health as well as facilitating control over this part of a migrants’ life, when many aspects of their life may feel out of their personal control.

Research into mental health supports the idea that exercise can be a useful tool for a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas says “exercise has been shown to have tremendous benefits for mental health” and, particularly relevant for our work with migrants, “exercise can fill the gap for people who can’t receive traditional therapies because of cost or lack of access”. Of course this isn’t to say that exercise can replace therapy, but that it can have its own therapeutic benefits.

Such well-researched benefits of exercise can include helping us sleep better, releasing endorphins to create feelings of happiness, boosting memory thanks to an increase in learning cells produced in the brain during exercise, alleviating anxiety and moderating the body’s response to stress. And it isn’t just when exercising that these effects take place, getting the heart pumping in just a 30 minute workout can produce benefit-bringing chemicals in the brain when the body is at rest too, particularly the handling of the body’s stress response.

It seems like an obvious solution, to encourage the migrants we will be working with to practise regular exercise. But why facilitate group exercise sessions? Research has shown that people perform better on aerobic tests when they are working with others, so they tend to work harder and give up less easily. Working in a group can even increase our tolerance to pain. Another clear benefit of working out together, even if there is no competitive element, is that it encourages teamwork and mutual support. One issue that can arise in the refugee shelters we are working in is division and conflict between those with different nationalities, languages and cultures. Activities that do not rely on a common language, such as sports, can be a key way of breaking down these barriers and encouraging teamwork.

There are multiple proven benefits to exercise beyond the physical. Empowering the migrant to take control of their health, establishing relationships outside of the bounds of language and culture and the stress-relieving chemical effects on the brain are just a few. My personal goal is to help some of the refugees we will be working to become inspired by exercise, as I have been, and that our work will do a little better than the sports lessons I took in school in encouraging regular exercise as a way of life.

We will keep you updated on any sporty success stories that we achieve over the next year: watch this space!

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This website reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.