Hannah attended our Get on Track for Wellbeing programme, funded by Sport England in 2019. Since then she's gone on to become a journalist, freelance writer and public speaker, talking about a range of topics around homelessness and mental health, many of which can be read on her website. For Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked her to write about the importance of physical activity and the benefit it can have on mental health.

Taking care of your mental health is so important, and it is well documented that physical activity benefits our mental health along with our physical health. With the added pressures of lockdown and more people than ever struggling with their mental health, it’s absolutely vital to make sure we’re still exercising as and when we can. 

For me, when things were at their worst, I completely stopped exercising. I knew from playing football for most of my life that exercise really helped me mentally, but I found myself in this deep dark hole which felt impossible to climb out of. When you’re at your lowest, it’s the hardest thing ever to motivate yourself to do anything, just getting out of bed feels like running a marathon. 

At  this point I was homeless and suffering from severe PTSD. I wasn’t sleeping because of nightmares and experiencing horrendous flashbacks. The anxiety caused by PTSD meant it was nearly impossible to do things I once loved doing.

I came across Dame Kelly Holmes Trust's Get on Track program on Twitter,  at that point I was so fed up with each day just rolling into one without achieving anything.

Over the course of the programme, we went climbing, mountain biking, played rugby on the beach and went to Inflatanation. It was great to be exercising again and I started to see an improvement in my mental health. We did a boxing session after my athlete mentor Paul saw me punch a wall, the boxing was was a great outlet for my anger. Although things were still bad, I always felt better after the sessions.

The Get on Track programme led me on to do a surf therapy program with The Wave Project, which I can honestly say was life changing! Surfing, like any form of exercise makes you feel like you’ve achieved something. You have to focus completely on what you’re doing, so there’s no time to think about anything else. For me it’s a form of mindfulness. If you lose focus for even a few seconds, you could end up stuck in a rip, colliding with another surfer or on top of a reef. 

Surfing works wonders when I’m anxious. Even when I’m at the point of feeling sick with anxiety, I know that as soon as I’m in the sea and surfing I will feel calm. Being in the sea also allows you to feel connected to nature which is super important for our mental health. Even on flat days I still paddle out because there is something so calming about being in the sea. 

My sleep also improved when I started surfing, it had been bad for months, but after the first surf therapy session I slept like a baby. I quickly learnt that when I was surfing was the only time I wouldn’t have flashbacks. The sense of calm that it brought, stayed with me for a few days afterwards. 

I feel like surfing also made me more resilient. When you are up against something as powerful as the sea and you get an absolute battering, just making it out back to sit and wait for a wave is a challenge. However, even when the conditions aren’t perfect, you still feel like you’ve really achieved something and that’s the same for any sport, whether you're up against a physical opponent or something like the sea

Lockdown is obviously affecting everyone's mental health. This is not a situation that any of us have experienced before, so it’s completely normal to be struggling right now or feeling whatever you are feeling. There is no doubt that exercise is making it slightly easier for me. Even though I can’t surf at the moment, making sure I go for a walk or run every day, and taking my football to do some keepy uppies on the way really helps. 

To find out more about Hannah and read more of her work, please visit her website: https://hannahswords.com/