Fergus Mitchell pictured with his dog

The Power of Exercise

Fergus Mitchell (pictured) is a 3rd year veterinary student at Nottingham University. He is the VetSoc’s Welfare Officer this academic year and is passionate about promoting mental health awareness amongst his peers. Combined with his love for sport, this has led him to start his own research into how exercise can positively impact vet students and others within the profession.

Exercise is good for us. It’s not rocket science or veterinary science for that matter, and in most cases it’s hard to argue otherwise. Regular physical exercise is well documented to benefit our physical and mental health. The recent lockdown in the UK has highlighted this further. During April and May “one hour of exercise a day” became a buzz phrase, alongside “stay at home” and “essential travel only”. Exercise was one of the things we could do, even if it were not our ‘normal’.

But, (there is always a catch, or this blog would not be worth your time) do you wish that you had more regular exercising habits?

The intense, demanding work hours vets, nurses, and students all encounter probably leave us short of time. Coupled with family lives, social lives, and never-ending to-do lists, we have plenty of reasons to not spend hours in the gym or play for local sports teams on a weekend.

I am sure a lot of members of the profession successfully manage to achieve these endeavours, but then I ask, when times get tough is it exercise that gets dropped?

I cannot speak for everyone, however, when it comes to a pressure point in my studies, for example, during exam time or on a placement, I struggle to exercise. No matter how much I know it is good for me and would help alleviate any stress, I fail to don my trainers and get out.

This personal struggle of mine and a passion for championing mental health awareness, led me to an informative talk held in the vet school. Charlie Mays chatted about his and Andy Rose’s work to set up VetFit, a research driven service for the veterinary community, which they founded after carrying out a study at the RVC. Their work led to institutional changes at their university and ignited a spark within me. For more details on their service and excellent work, search @Vetfitinsta on Instagram or visit the VetFit website.

One thing that resonated with me from that evening was this concept:

As members of the veterinary profession, it is common to identify as a vet/ vet nurse/ vet student before anything else. Many of us are so passionate about our work, it is understandably easy to let it identify us. However, does this subconscious mindset control us when it does come to pressure points (as I shared, in my experience so far, exams and placements). Do we forget the other things that make us happy and relaxed, such as exercise and sport?

After all, taking 20 minutes out of my day to go for a jog or stretching should not be an issue, I am not talking marathons or rugby matches here!

I was intrigued and wondered how we can change our habits for the better as members of a profession which is sadly, more frequently associated with poor mental wellbeing.

To investigate this further, I met with a couple of brilliant staff members here at Nottingham and planned to carry out our own research. At the time of writing this we have completed the data collection phase.

We invited first year, female vet students, who self-identified as exercising less than the NHS minimum physical activity guidelines for adults*, to participate in the project. We offered the students a free, 8-week exercise program comprising 3 sessions of activity per week.

The 3 sessions included:

  1. A circuits session led by the same instructor weekly.
  2. An intro to sports session led by individuals from already established sport societies on Sutton Bonington campus (I.e. netball, badminton, football). The sport changed weekly.
  3. A stretch/ reflect session led by myself and another student. The idea being to have a lower intensity session, relaxing the mind and body.

We had 12 participants who measured their well-being at the start, half-way through and at the end of the program, using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scales. They will take a final well-being measurement 6 months after the program has ended. We aim to analyse how the structured, 8-week exercise program impacted the lives of our participants and if it has had any long-lasting effects.

We also asked for the participant’s resting heart rate at the start and end of the project and once a week during the peak intensity of their circuits session.

Additionally, we recruited a life coach to deliver a life coaching session during the program, which hopefully allowed the participants to reflect on their progress made.

Initially, we envisaged running an identical program for members of the first year April Cohort of vet students, starting their course this spring. However, due to the pandemic, their arrival on campus was postponed and as such we have not been able to go ahead with that this year.

The data collected will be analysed as part of my 3rd year dissertation at Nottingham University and I hope to share any findings with you in another blog soon.

I’d like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative team for helping us with funds, the UoN Sports staff for allowing us to use their facilities at a reduced rate, all the sports societies’ presidents and captains for giving up their time, Georgie Bladon, Sabine Tötemeyer and Amy Sansby who were brilliant support and Caroline Quarmby for kindly offering to take the circuits session each week for free. And of course, thanks to all the participants for giving their time and energy to the program too!

Without these people the project would not have been possible to run.

*NHS guidelines for adults – do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week.

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