Wednesday 15 May 2024

Moving More for Our Mental Health

By Paul Saunders-Priem


I first met Paul and his lovely wife Fiona in July 2018 on a bench overlooking Derwentwater in the English Lake District. We hit it off immediately and exchanged details before parting company. I had the pleasure to accompany them on one of their urban rambles around my home city of Newcastle a few years later. I recently shared a link on social media to the Mental Health Foundation’s positive mental health image library. Paul commented that “Walking is a great way to manage your mind wellbeing. Been doing that most of my life!” Not one to let the opportunity of a guest post escape me, I asked if he’d consider sharing his thoughts and experiences for Mental Health Awareness Week. This brilliant piece is the result. Thank you, Paul.


Moving More for Our Mental Health

By Paul Saunders-Priem

From birth you are overcoming the urge to be still. Think then move is the most basic human thing to do. This comes with a catch called choice which is where all the good stuff starts and the bad. I was walking in the hills years ago and chose to walk into a bog because it didn’t look like a bog! No matter what the choice though once the decision is made inertia is best overcome by simply taking the first steps. You’ve won! It might not be a big victory but it’s a win!

So now I’m moving. I look around but of course I’m thinking and best of all: feeling. No matter what mental ups and downs I have I’m on a higher plane than when I was not moving. A movement victory can bring negative feelings which are necessary because movement brings risk physical and mental. We always look when crossing a road. It’s obstacles all the way or steps up as I like to call them: opportunities to notice the movement achievement past present and future because no matter whether moving or not my mental state and the world around me is moving! We’re all on the living ride like it or not.

The decision to move is mental preparation for what comes next. No one knows what life puts in front of you big or little but after deciding to move that empowering feeling puts you in a good position to deal with it. I walked my family into a bog in the Pennines but stop and retreat came quickly because decision was forced on me and I was ready. Movement leads to mental awareness which brings more movement!

I’ve been a hiker most of my 67 years. I still urban ramble at least twice a week doing never less than 10 miles in total and 5 days of the week my movement is pacing around my backroom for exercise because you get stiff if you sit for too long, but even this limited activity with none of the outside stimulation of weather and scenery has a positive effect on thinking and feeling. I do this backroom pacing because I’m very engrossed in activities but the urge to move is always there pushed by my mind to take a break and coffee doesn’t move to me... I’ve got to do that myself! Coffee breaks are great movement points!

The move-rest rhythm always pushing us on the journey physical or mental is the natural organisation of life. You may feel good or bad but there it is: a problem, a potential, path or pleasure. Your mind is going to work on it. Moving that rhythm around through choice is the only freedom anyone has and the urge is always to feel better. So looking for better choices is our natural state. No one puts salt into coffee!

Getting on the move is choosing your problem not letting it choose you. Live your own rhythm. I’ve been physically handicapped (an injured arm from an accident) for over 60 years. I’ve never had a mental health problem because my inner life always has this focus on my damaged arm. It’s my permanent daily problem but it can be made better or worse. No choice here but healthy though, because people with mental health problems also have no choice. I’m no different from many other people. From typing to cooking for my family I always have to notice my physical handicap, like it or not. Just like life itself. But within my limitation I can live my own rhythm and if I want a better life: I have to.

So quality of movement is needed here. I can try various ways (movements) to adapt to my injured arm. Walks / exercise / movement is on a worse to better continuum and considering this alone is uplifting. You may feel like not being on the spectrum at all! But like it or lump it we all are so movement starts in the mind and not doing something about it feels like two failures: the one in the mind and the one your body hasn’t done.

The tension of choice always exists between getting going or not. No matter what problem I have it is there. So on top of what needs to be solved is that initial getting going problem. Inertia is a universal working against moving mentally and physically, whether it is a property of mental illness or in my case life itself. Whilst with my physical handicap I know I am different from those that are not, I draw a great strength knowing that I share with everyone the daily battle of deciding whether to get up and get going or not! What I call the universal grief or grin is always there!

Movement by walking is the number-one mood management tool. Any environment physical or mental is lived in up to a point and then it is time to do something else. I may not feel like doing that but walking as a habit is a way of life for me because I have been doing it since being a toddler where I escaped from the army compound I lived in in Hong Kong and wandered the city! It takes me into a new world which relieves the oppressive feeling that I need to make a change by doing something different. Walking does not have to be striding out in the hills or sprinting around the urban landscape it can simply be pacing in my own room.

All of what I have written is surrounded by time, and organising time within walking occurs whether an interval is set or not because eventually I will feel hungry or thirsty: the desire for coffee always lurks! Alongside walking is setting a time period which adds even more power and control over mood. Such goal setting at times to me seems almost petty and inconsequential but it is massively life enhancing. Goal setting is a form of hope. There are many little wins in daily life and I’ve found these wins built on a foundation of movement just make that daily struggle that bit better!


Photo of Paul in Whitby, by Fiona Saunders-Priem.


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