Endorphins aren’t enough – we need team sport to be truly happy

By Anna Bryan

As Elle Woods says in the iconic 2001 film Legally Blonde: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy”. This proverb particularly hit home during lockdown, when I found myself locked in my claustrophobic one-bedroom flat feeling especially unhappy. While my government authorized one-hour-a-day run eased some of this malaise, I found myself struggling to find the motivation to get out and exercise amidst the loneliness of lockdown.

 As a dancer and a former rugby player, I had never experienced fitness in such a lonely manner before. I was accustomed to getting up close and personal tackling my friends in the fields, to sweaty hand-on-hand contact with dance partners, and most of all, to lively trips to the pub after practice. Yet all of a sudden, I was unable to do any of this and found myself forcing myself out on solitary runs in the seemingly uninhabited city. I was getting my endorphins, but I still felt miserable and could tell my mental health was slipping. And I wasn’t the only one.

Before lockdown, team sport was a massive part of Bethan Cameron’s life. Cameron, the Vice Captain of the women’s rugby team at Strathclyde, was used to constantly being surrounded by teammates, many of whom she considers as her closest friends. However, in March, her rugby community was split up when the country went into mass lockdown.  “I see myself as quite a resilient person”, Cameron says, “but being isolated from my teammates and not talking to many of them for months took its toll”.

Like me, she struggled to find the motivation to exercise. While she is usually incredibly disciplined, attending two training sessions and two gym sessions a week on top of rugby games, she struggled to keep up with this regime alone. “Without the peer support and the fun of training with my teammates, exercising was a boring task that I was not enjoying as much as I usually would”, she says.

Katie Smith, the president of Strathclyde’s women’s rugby club also experienced this difficulty, saying that “Even though I had every resource available to me to continue to train to a high standard, like outdoor space and my dad’s weights, I didn’t do anything for about the first three months. I definitely struggled to find the motivation as the future, long-term and short-term, was so unpredictable and unknown”.

When I speak to Alan Currie, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Sports and Exercise Psychiatry Special Interest Group, it becomes very clear why Bethan, Katie and I have struggled to feel the usual mental benefits we get from exercise in lockdown. He tells me that exercise can benefit us in three ways – biologically, psychologically and socially. With any particular exercise activity, you’re likely to experience improvement in at least one or two of these areas. But for team sports, he says that “the social benefits are there in addition to the biological and psychological ones”.

Indeed, a study from 2019 found that “among young athletes, anxiety and depression are more common in those who play individual sports than those who play team sports.” The study goes on to conclude that “it is possible that the social opportunities associated with team sports promote fun and stress relief, while training for individual sports is lonelier and can lead to less healthy goal setting”.

We’ve all been forced to put team sport on the back burner, and focus on individual exercise, so it’s no wonder many of us are receiving fewer mental benefits from exercise than usual– it’s been proven that the fun and friends that team sports provide can really make a difference.

A study from University College London found that those with an “existing mental health diagnosis have reported doing less exercise” throughout lockdown. This is particularly concerning, considering the huge population of students that find themselves dealing with mental health issues. In 2018, the BBC found that the number of university students in Scotland seeking support for mental health issues had increased by two-thirds over the course of five years, and this number is very likely increasing with the isolation and financial difficulties caused by Covid-19 hitting the student population particularly hard.

Team sport and exercise could be a way to provide motivation and support to those struggling, however, due to the most recent measures prohibiting exercising in groups, students are currently being left without this potential lifeline.

Cameron believes team sport is vital to the university experience and says, “As most students move away to university and live on their own for the first time it is so important that they are able to meet new people, so they have a support network around them while they are at university. Playing a team sport is a great way to do this and has had such a positive impact on my mental health throughout my time at university”.

Currie tells me he is particularly worried about how measures limiting team sport will impact new students, saying that “Joining a society or team sports are things to help you cement your place at university, to establish yourself, to make new friendships. Some of that is going to be missing, and it’s hard to recreate in artificial ways. It’s not impossible, but it’s never going to be the same”.

Sadly, here in the Central Belt, non-professional team sports have been suspended once again, meaning Bethan and Katie won’t be able to meet with their team on the pitch until at least the end of October. Indoor group exercise activities have also been banned, so I won’t be dancing in a studio any-time soon.

However, Eilidh Sneddon, VP Sport for Strathclyde Student Union, made clear that while students may not be able to participate in group exercise in-person for a little while longer, there are still opportunities to form social bonds. She says that “all sports clubs and union societies are running online social activity, allowing new students to meet people in various zoom quizzes, Instagram live sessions and joining club Facebook groups to gain a sense of community and Strathlete identity”.

Over lockdown, Strathclyde’s women’s rugby club held a virtual AGM, and like everyone else, did “the odd zoom quiz”, says Smith. While they are disappointed to have to wait until the end of the month to train in-person, she says that they are using Strava challenges “to keep everyone engaged and communicating with each other and our coaches”.

However, Smith also says that “it is going to be strange not training while living in Glasgow as it is a huge part of my routine here”. Cameron agrees, adding that “no amount of zoom calls will ever be a substitute for meeting up in person for a training session”.

So for now we’ll just have to make do with solitary exercise in our flats and gardens while trying to maintain the connection with our exercising buddies and teammates online. But it’s clear that when restrictions are eased once again and life goes back to semi-normal, team exercise and sport needs to be prioritised.

After all, sports clubs and exercise groups aren’t just ways to get fit, but also provide essential support systems for people, and are almost “like families”, as Sneddon says.

For the sake of the wellbeing of every person in these sporting families, let’s keep our fingers crossed that we can all get back to the fields, pitches, gyms and studios – as soon as it is safe.