IRL: exercising my demons through staying active

Louise Johnstone explains how sporting achievements  can promote better mental health

During reflective moments, I notice that I reduce the amount of physical activity and exercise I do when I’m struggling. Some may rejoice at the thought of not exercising, but for me it’s daft because it is a really important management tool for my mental health.

Being physically active and exercising represents so much to me and about me.  It’s my management tool for life, it builds my confidence and self-esteem (and yes it can also take it down a peg or two), I feel connected to like-minded individuals, but above all that, I have learned so much about myself.  Faced with the hard facts of those achievements, I can’t deny that I have made them.

Let me give you some context: I have suffered from mental illness at varying points in my life, from depression, to anxiety, to stress and panic attacks among others.  In reality, it has not been at varying points but exists as a continuum that ebbs and flows with life.  Throughout all of this, I am very lucky to say I have reliably been able to lean on my exercise habits, albeit when I allow myself to do so.  

This has included lots of different types of activity including team sports when I was at school and university.  Hockey was perhaps my saving grace: it gave me an outlet, a feelgood factor that I was not getting from any other area of my life.  

All that the PE I immersed myself in at school really did was to lighten a heavy weight on my shoulders for very brief periods, and remove what felt like a dark, dark cloak over my life for some relief.  Yes, I was one of those lucky few who really did enjoy PE at school and was okay at it; not amazing, but also never picked last unless it came to the popularity games.  

This is the common thread that runs through my life and when it’s not there, I struggle.  For you, it might be music, writing, drama to name a few possibilities, so irrespective of the activity you can perhaps relate?

In my mid-twenties, I began my journey into working in the fitness world and I very quickly realised that if I could help others feel even a tiny part of what I get from being active, maybe they would feel better and work towards achieving their goals.  I’d be helping them!  

I also returned to team games in the form of rugby which would give so much, but also could take from me as well.  What is there not to love about rugby?  

I love the challenge of learning new skills, the need to continually be assessing what is happening around you on the pitch, executing skills correctly under pressure, being a part of something – being in a team!  

But on the flip side I became injured to a degree which, at the time, meant I did not know whether I would be able to continue being active.  My life was flipped upside down all of a sudden.  With the help of my brilliant physios, I was able to recover and began my journey as a runner.

My legs could deal with consistent pace so, despite hating distance running, out I went. At first, it was so so hard, it was painful in another kind of way, it felt near on impossible to ‘get it right’.  How on earth did everyone make it look so easy?!

And yet here I am, having completed the Marathon des Sables in April 2016, described as the ‘toughest footrace on the planet’.

I did this for my local mental health charity, Dundee Association for Mental Health – sometimes it takes something bigger than ourselves to be able to really push the boundaries of our comfort zones.  

I learnt a lot about myself out there, I learned that I am a strong person, way stronger than I ever imagined or thought capable.  As a good friend told me after I came back from the Sahara desert, ‘everything will be described as before the Marathon and after the Marathon’.  She was 100% right.

Everything is hard until you know how, sometimes it takes getting the technique, sometimes it’s about putting in the work.  But by doing so, you are already determined, focused, you can work to a plan and you are part of a community. You won’t give up when you come across some obstacles or challenges. You have reached a goal, you are still working at being better than yesterday.  

How do I know this? Because I am those things too and I only learned this through being active.

In keeping with this idea I am working hard towards my next challenge of taking on the Namib Sand Marathon at a scorching +40C, then six days later I will take on the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon at -40C.  A crazy 80-degree temperature shift in less than a week! 

Once again my challenges will be to raise awareness and any funds possible for Dundee Association for Mental Health and the Scottish Association for Mental Health.

For more information on Louise Johnstone go to

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