I've suffered with mental health problems for a few years now, exacerbated by a series of events which began around 2012, including the death of a close friend in a tragic accident and the death of my father (who had Alzheimer's). Around the same time, my son was born and my wife suffered badly with post-natal depression. I was also having relationship difficulties at work with my manager and was made redundant. It was a very difficult time.
I finally sought professional help in 2015 and was diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder (sometimes called Exogenous, Reactive or Situational Depression). There were some very dark days, days when I couldn't see the tunnel, let alone the light at the end of it. I became so ill that I didn't want to leave the house, avoided family and friends and even stopped enjoying football, which had been a passion for me.
There were times I felt overwhelmed and had thoughts of suicide, standing on the railway bridge near my home waiting for the train to come. It was a vicious circle as I would struggle to sleep which would in turn lower my mood and increase my thoughts of hopelessness. I piled on 3 and a half stone, partly due to the medication I was on and partly due to my isolation and comfort eating.
I was in and out of work, but had difficulty concentrating when I was there and I tried to avoid difficult situations. At my worst, I suffered badly with anxiety and paranoia, which made simple experiences like going to the park or shops miserable ones. I shut down my social media accounts.
I even struggled to enjoy the time I spent with my son and would stress out over his safety. My physical health subsequently suffered and I hit 19 stone in weight, the heaviest I'd ever been. I was at rock bottom.
With the help of a psychologist and the support of my wife, I decided to use the time out of work in a positive way to try and focus on getting well again. I was referred on to a course called the ‘Active Health Scheme’ by my GP, qualifying due to having a mental illness, high liver function and being overweight. The scheme is a 12-week long course and involves a simple commitment to attend the classes and, hopefully, lose weight.
Each weekly class lasts an hour with around 45 minutes of high intensity interval training (HIIT) which targets the major muscle groups to help stimulate weight loss. The class ability levels vary but you generally get out of it what you put in to it and it's been very helpful in opening my eyes to simple exercises to do at home. I was initially anxious about attending, but the exercise and social interaction has had a very positive impact on my mental health.
The scheme also involves education around nutrition which has been important in helping me lose a few pounds in conjunction with the exercise. Changes such as eating sweet potato fries instead of chips, controlling portion size and eating good fats (e.g. avocado’s) are simple but effective changes. Nutrition was something I'd always struggled with, even when I was exercising regularly.
A big change I made is that I now regularly order a lot of food from a company called 'MuscleFood'. They sell a good range of very high quality meat which is also very good value in comparison to supermarket prices. I freeze most of the order on arrival and defrost items as and when I need them, which is good for planning. I try and supplement the meat with vegetables from the local supermarket. It's really helped me control my diet and prevents me snacking on rubbish.
I track what I eat using an app called 'MyFitnessPal' which handily syncs with the Fitbit app so I can be mindful of my daily calories burned v calories consumed to avoid putting on unnecessary weight. It sounds like a lot of work, but it's pretty straightforward once your foods are scanned in, particularly if you repeat meals.
I bought a Fitbit tracker so I could be mindful of the amount of exercise I was doing each day and not just fitness classes, but ambient exercise such as walking, housework, etc. I operate better when I can visibly see how active I am being and setting goals helps motivate me in to doing more exercise. A few of my friends and family also use Fitbit so it helps stimulate a bit of healthy competition and occasional frenzied walking around the house!
To try and build on my initial Active Health Scheme progress, I have started doing a 12 week training program at home using an an app called 'Runtastic Results'. It's a tailored training program, based on your own perceived fitness levels and a 10 minute fitness test. The first month is free so I'll evaluate it over the next few weeks to see if I want to pay a subscription fee. I enjoyed the first week’s workouts far more than the initial fitness test which included 2 minutes of burpees, awful if you're 6’3 and nearly 18 stone!
One of my friends also challenged me to do 22 press ups a day for 22 days to raise awareness for soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so I've got that to look forward to, on top of the HIIT. I’ll happily admit that I'm not a great fan of HIIT going on my early experiences, but I suppose if there's no pain, there's no gain and it gives me a goal to strive for to maintain my strength as I hopefully shed some pounds.
I'm playing a bit more football, regularly on Wednesday nights at the local school and have recently enjoyed playing in two excellent tournaments for Men Tell Health. The football tournaments were very well organised by both the MFC Foundation and the Derby County Community Trust. The Men Tell Health team was also superbly organised by Gary Pollard, Men Tell's Chief Exec, and it was great to meet the lads who made up our team. We even made the semi-finals in Derby, only losing out to eventual winners Middlesbrough, which I don't mind. Hopefully there'll be many more successful tournaments to come.
Putting all these changes in to practice I've managed to lose 14lbs so far and my goal is to lose a further 26lbs by Christmas. The weight loss has been one positive aspect but it's really helped my mental well being and I've been able to get out in the fresh air and meet new people, something I never thought possible last year. I've also started writing a few online blogs about football which has given me another focus and now I've managed my first ever blog about mental health (if you've made it this far).
Seeing the psychologist has been very important and getting insight in to my behavioural reaction to certain situations and how to manage this. It has also been important to get active, get out the house and get involved in things in order to overcome my illness. Apparently the physiological link between the body and mind means that exercise benefits both.
Hopefully, I'll be well enough to get back in full time employment in the future but it's a journey to wellness that I'll be taking one (Fitbit) step at a time…"
Life always seems to find a way to hit you when you're down, so it's a massive credit to Andrew that he kept going when he was dealt some very cruel blows. Does any of Andrew's story ring any bells with you? How did you cope with life's ups and downs? Has being more physically fit made you mentally stronger? Let us know in the comments below.