Can exercise really save your life?

Debbie’s story is about the impact exercise has had on her life. It is an important story for all of us, but especially women who suffer from mental health problems and depression.  Here is Debbie’s story.

Despite being a dancer in my youth and relatively fit and healthy until my 30s, I went on to experience 20 years of poor health.  I am now 56.   In the last two decades I have recovered from cancer 3 times.  Due to all the treatment and on-going recovery periods I became morphine dependent.  I was then diagnosed as bipolar.  I sought help and I went through lots of therapies, including an extended residential stay, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other talking therapies. These worked for a time but my depression always reoccurred.  I just couldn’t get a feeling of wellness. 

At my lowest points I tried to end my life and was resuscitated twice, once by my sister who found me.  After a long stay in hospital, my sister and mother suggested I come and live at my sister’s house where my mother lives in an annex with her.  I did this and 9 months later was able to sell my house in Leicester and buy a house 2 streets away from them.

It was whilst staying at my sister’s I found out about 50 plus classes at a local gym.  Despite my dancing in the past I’d never been in a gym in my life!  During my hospital stays I had put on 4 stone having never been above 8.5 stone before.

Once the exercise class started, and as soon as the music went on, I felt at home, able to participate and my body knew what to do.  The exercise combined with slimming world means I have lost 3.5 stone in the last 18 months.  I am really a lover of the classes but do have some personal training in the gym sometimes.

I am now off all my medication except one antidepressant at nighttime.  I have stuck with the 50 plus classes (even though I could easily do some of the others) partly because of the social aspects.  We meet up for events like Christmas lunch and coffee after classes and I also know all the staff at the Leisure Centre too and count many of them as friends.  The Centre really feels like my second home and I go every day except the weekends.  

However it’s important to say that there are days when things are not going so well for me and I have to push myself to go.  Whilst I might feel like I’d really rather stay at home I make myself go and always feel better afterwards.

I truly believe these classes are the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had.  I know a few other people who suffer with poor mental health and I’ve managed to get them to come and join in and they have found it helpful too.

I think some people are put off gyms and Leisure Centres as they have an image of them being full of 20 and 30 somethings, all fit and slim.  Ours is so welcoming and every single class, not just those for the over 50’s, give you options in terms of difficulty, which means everyone can join in and even if you sit out for a bit that’s acceptable too.  One member of our class is 90 and we have many people attend in their 70s and 80s.

One of my favourite classes is Clubbersize, which is dancing in the dark with glow sticks.  Because it is in the dark it is really good for people with body image issues.  You get to learn routines and it’s a great cardio work-out. 

I would encourage others with mental health problems or depression to try and find a welcoming Leisure Centre.  Then experiment with different classes until you find one you like.  Class teachers should always be mindful of people’s medical history and good ones should be able to adapt the exercises or give you alternatives.

Five years on from a very low point, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that exercise (along with the love and support of my family) has saved my life.