‘I wouldn’t be here without it’: The importance of exercise to teenagers

Boxer Mary-Kate Slattery and Hurdler Thomas Barr on mental health benefits

Mary-Kate Slattery. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Mary-Kate Slattery. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Amateur boxer Mary-Kate Slattery is no stranger to the difficulties mental health can bring. Diagnosed with anorexia at the age of nine, the athlete said she is only where she is today because of exercise.

“I think people know that exercise is good for you. It’s like when you go to the doctor because you’re feeling a bit blue or whatever, the two questions you’re asked are ‘have you slept?’ and ‘are you exercising?” Slattery said.

“I think people know that, but there’s a block. I guess people overlook the importance of it. But sometimes you think that it would be easier to stay on the couch, watch a bit of something, but you overlook the importance of exercise. I wouldn’t be here without it.”

The 23-year-old recalled when she was sitting her Leaving Cert, and gave up sports to focus all of her energy on her studies. As a result, her mood plummeted and her mental health deteriorated. “It’s funny because, I came away from sport maybe in fifth or sixth year, when I was putting all of my energy into the Leaving Cert and my anxiety came back. I didn’t at that time realise, but it’s now in hindsight when I look back at it, I can see it was because I neglected my physical activity for those two years,” she added.

Anxiety and depression

According to the most recent youth mental health survey, My World Survey 2, rates of anxiety and depression among teenagers doubled from 11 per cent in 2012 to 22 per cent in 2019. The survey also found that young people who played sport were less likely to experience severe/very severe anxiety and depression compared to those who do play sport.

Speaking at the launch of the 2020 Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge, a six-week programme to encourage secondary school students to take up physical activity, Slattery and Irish Olympian Hurdler Thomas Barr said the rising number of young people shows a need to remind them of how enjoyable sport can be.

Ireland’s Thomas Barr running in the semi-finals of the Men’s 400m Hurdles. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO.
Ireland’s Thomas Barr running in the semi-finals of the Men’s 400m Hurdles. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO.

Barr said with the advent of technology, it is now easier than ever to be entertained without having to move at all. “I always find that activity and exercise gives me more energy. It was always for school, it was that guilt-free hour away from the books where I could go out and get refreshed, hang out with my friends and it was a big social thing for me. I think it’s too easy now to be lazy,” Barr said.

“Like I’m guilty of it myself, go home sit on my phone for two hours aimlessly scrolling through the different apps. Whereas I don’t think when I was younger I would have done that - I would have been bored.

“If we remind kids of what that feels like, those happy hormones, it becomes an addiction then that they can do more and more. It’s going to benefit their physical and their mental health to a huge degree.”

Take chances

Easier said than done, the Olympian acknowledges, but Barr believes that encouraging children to try a huge variety of sport will enable them to find the type that they enjoy the most.

“The way I found what worked for me and what I was good at was I literally tried out every single sport that I could possibly get access to. My parents were very obliging about driving me around to all the different training sessions, competitions and matches,” he said.

“Even within athletics, I tried out every event that I possibly could. I was a high jumper for years, I did javelin, I did long jump, I did short hurdles, I did sprinting, I did cross country, I did everything until I found the one that I enjoyed. I didn’t even find the one I was good at, I wasn’t good at 400 hurdles but I enjoyed it the most and that is why I stuck with it.”

Slattery agrees, adding that breaking through your comfort zone is the best way to pick up new hobbies. “I would say that the best results come from a situation where you feel a little bit out of your comfort zone. You never learn anything when you’re in your comfort zone, you have to push yourself out a little bit,” she said.

“The first time I stepped into the boxing club, I was like a total fish out of water. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it has been something that has changed my life.

“What I would say to the younger people, and the women in particular, is take a chance at a sport that you might not have imagined yourself doing in a million years. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t say that’s not for me, before you even try it. Do something a bit crazy, and enjoy the craziness of it all.”

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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