I work for Oxfordshire Mind, I have done for five years. I'm the Physical Activity and Wellbeing Coordinator, and my job is to run projects that help encourage people to be active for their mental health. We know that when people are more active, it releases endorphins and helps break up racing thoughts and anxiety. When people are experiencing low mood, we know that physical activity can be as effective as antidepressants. So it's really a really effective primary intervention for supporting mental health.
What we’ve found over the last few years is that by delivering mental health workshops, or wellbeing sessions, alongside physical activity, it can be a holistic way of supporting lots of different people with different needs. If we run physical activity and wellbeing together, some people come along solely because they want the physical activity, and they wouldn't come along if you just ran a mental health workshop, but they get the benefits of the wellbeing sessions. And you'll get other people who aren’t very active, and want to come along because they're interested in the mental health workshop, and they get the benefits the physical activity that they weren't expecting. So, it can be a lovely combination to bring them together. The combination of physical activity and wellbeing sessions supports mental and physical health together, and helps people to learn that exercise can support their wellbeing and boost low mood.
Before the lockdown, we would run Boxing and wellbeing sessions, where we would teach people to box, just the beginner's kind of non-contact physical activity, and also run a mental health workshop afterwards. It was a really nice way of combining mental health support and physical activity together. We have delivered these courses with funding from Active Oxfordshire around schools, and with adults all over Oxfordshire, and it was really well received. When our normal mental health services closed down in the first lockdown, we transitioned to doing courses and groups online. We decided to try the Boxing and Wellbeing course on Zoom. We had a really good response, and lots of people attended and really enjoyed the course.
I was telling Active Oxfordshire about this online pilot when we were first bringing the Active Reach partnership together. They asked if we’d like to deliver some of those courses online, specifically for people in the Blackbird Leys and Greater Leys area. So we got flyers printed, I went around all of Blackbird Leys flyering, handing leaflets out, putting posters up in shops. The courses were due to start in September. And sadly, we just didn't get enough people signed up to run the courses. I think by September maybe people were a bit bored of sitting in front of a computer and exercising online. At that time restrictions had eased and we were able to socialise and exercise with other people a bit more so I think people were probably enjoying seeing people in person. So we didn't end up running those courses. But Aspire started doing a Friday exercise session on Zoom for their service users, and asked whether I would come along and run a mental health and wellbeing session afterwards. People would be able to exercise and get the endorphins going, and then we will have half an hour for people to have a cup of coffee and have a chat and talk about how things are going for them. They already had some service users on board wanting to do this, and that sounded perfect.
We've been doing it every Friday since maybe the beginning of November and it's been absolutely wonderful. It’s one of the highlights of my week. I really love those sessions. It's an hour and a half, so you get a really good workout in, and then afterwards, people are just able to talk about how they're finding it all. We talk about the lockdown situation a lot, and just check in with how we’re all finding it. We talk about how we're coping at the moment, and share tips of things that are making life a bit nicer. People share recipes, talk about things they've baked. We talk a lot about going out for walks and how that's been helping with our mental health. People even share meditation apps that they’ve been using, and talk about daily gratitude. It’s a really inspiring group, and always gives me new ideas of how to look after my own wellbeing. Quite often I’ll read out a mindfulness relaxation script for a few minutes, and we do that as a nice way of having some peace. And it's just been brilliant. I’ve found it's benefited my mental health hugely. And I think it is that wonderful combination of having the exercise and then having a chat about mental health afterwards that does it. The exercise is a bit of an icebreaker. Because we're all on camera kind of sweating and jumping around the room, it, it breaks down the barriers. If we just had a wellbeing session to chat each week, it wouldn't do quite the same thing. The combination of exercise and wellbeing together go so well, and really allow people to open up about how they’re feeling.
I've always had a really close relationship with Active Oxfordshire. They’ve always been really amazing at bringing different partners together. You know, working with leisure partners, charity partners, local authority, they're great at getting everyone together to work towards the same goal. That's something that can be tricky sometimes, because charity partners are often in competition for the same pots of funding. So they've been incredibly important, I think, in this. They bring everyone together. We’re all being funded to run this on a Friday, every week. And without that funding, it's probably not something that we would have set up. It’s brilliant that Aspire, Achieve and Oxfordshire Mind all run this session together, and that’s quite unusual to have three partner organisations all running one session together. And the fact that it’s partnership working, the fact that we're from three different organisations, all coming together to run one session, has been hugely beneficial as we all bring something different to the session.
It’s also had added benefits, because I have benefitted from the sessions so much myself, which wasn’t something I really anticipated. If it was just Oxfordshire Mind running the session, I would be running both the physical activities session and the wellbeing session. I don’t think I would have benefited from it then, because then you're very much the facilitator and it’s a lot of work. Whereas because we're all doing a little bit each, it allows all of us to benefit from the session too. So that partnership working, I think has allowed us all to support each other as workers and as individuals.
Just for me, regardless of the fact that I'm a staff member, facilitating the session for other people, it's actually been really important for my wellbeing. It's kept me motivated to keep exercising every week, because even if I do nothing else, I do that Friday class. And by doing that, it means the rest of the week, I have stayed motivated to do other exercise too. These classes have helped me consistently exercise all winter, which isn’t always easy – especially in lockdown. This is a time when lockdown could have been really tough. I had postnatal depression about a year ago, and had quite a difficult time in my life. I've moved house recently, and my husband's been struggling with depression. So this could have been a period that could have got very low, and it never has. And I really think a big part of that is by having this group every Friday consistently in my life. I think if I did two lockdowns, exactly the same, and exercised through one and didn't exercise through the other, I think I would feel well and happy and be able to get through one enjoying it. And the other one, I think I would hate. This group has felt so supportive, being able to exercise together and have a chat and share wellbeing tips has really boosted my mood every week, and I’ve enjoyed it so much.
The sessions are very informal. People can dip in and out, you know, some people come just for the exercise, and most people stay around for both. The sessions are really group led which I think is important. So if the group just wants to chat that week, then we'll just chat. If they want to do a mindfulness activity, where we have some kind of relaxation and meditation, then we do that. We do quite a lot of peer support at Oxfordshire Mind where we bring people together to talk about what's going on in their lives. And we really emphasise that it's not just staff supporting service users, it's service users supporting each other - and people supporting people. That peer support is a huge part of what we do. This is a perfect example of how other people have supported me while I'm supporting them. I've benefited from it myself more than I expected to, I didn't really see this coming. I didn't really envisage that would happen, I kind of thought that I would just deliver the wellbeing sessions and support other people. I never expected that they would all support me so much.