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Exercising the mind: exploring the importance of sport for our mental wellbeing

Sport and exercise can be an important tool in our repertoire for dealing with the stresses of Oxford life.

World mental health day took place last week on the 10th of October, this this year’s theme being ‘young people and mental health in a changing world’. Everyone at Oxford is starting a new year, the majority of students are young adults and a changing world is a concept relat- able for all. In reflecting on the ways in which we can deal with the stresses that we face, as young people in an environment that can at times be chaotic, overwhelming and isolating, sport and exercise strikes me as an important tool in our repertoire. Exercise has been proven to reduce stress by up to 20 %. For some, it can be the key to staying afloat through term time.

It can be easy to view sport as a changing world in itself. In September, my twitter feed exploded over the record marathon time set in Berlin. Kipchoge obliterated the old record with the largest margin of change since 1967 as a niche debate raged over how much his bespoke Nikes had aided his performance. Nike claims they give a 4% advantage over other shoes and if this is the case Kipchoge is no better a runner than Kimetto, the erstwhile record holder. As disappointing as it would be to running fans, the breakthrough’s credit would belong to scientists, not to sporting giants. Across all elite levels of sport, change is manifest and similar technological and performance changes will unfold. Sports science, driven by jaw dropping revenues, is now a huge business and it is creating great change.

However, away from these heights, recreational sports stands aloof and untouched. If I play for my college, it is wearing a pair of basic boots and a gum shield, the brands of which haven’t changed in a decade. My trainers are no longer the cheapest pair of Nikes I find in Sports Direct, but they won’t be setting any world records outside of my daydreams. The greatest change involves using a fitbit knockoff, so I can track how fast and far I waddle. The overall quality of sport here is on a par with many regions and teams around the country, although the variety may be greater.

And this really should be comforting. Michaelmas can be a hellish term for all, and freshers in particular. Being able to maintain some links to home should be encouraged. Keeping up old routines of runs every other day/week/month can only be a positive thing. Solo time, outdoors, away from the pressure of meeting new people can create a healthier mindset.

Alternatively, joining a sports team can make tricky socialising easier. Graduating from a school team into a college side might provide a comforting group of friends, similar to those back home. And there are also the physical benefits of exercise. If I’m being honest, I definitely need to have a substantial detox after 0th week.

Sport is not a miracle drug that will cure all and we should take care. With our busy degree schedules, there is an obvious need to balance our time so that deadlines are still prioritised.

Additionally, intense commitment to sport can lead to strain, injury and can damage our mental health when we aim for unrealistic targets. This is supported by a study saying that you can overexercise: working out over 23 times a month or for longer than 90 minutes is actually associated with poorer mental health.

As so often with mental as well as physical health, balance is usually the key to fulfilment. Exercise makes up a part of this, even if it is only cycling the mile into college or strolling round the Uni Parks once in a while. Play hard, play fair, play safe to get rid of that pent up anger at your tutor. It will give you some positive endorphins to push you through the day and will give you memories of Oxford that will last far beyond your degree.

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