Through Sport, they overcame grief, physical injury, or heartache and made it a strength. Before becoming an international rugby player, Christophe Dominici was a young man full of anger and guilt, shattered by his big sister’s death. He says today that he has found refuge in his club.
After an accident, Philippe Croizon, amputated of his arms and legs, drew the courage to live in a crazy project: to swim the English Channel. Having become hemiplegic after a car accident at the age of 6, Benoit Pinton has regained his physical and intellectual capacities at the cost of constant effort. In 2011, he participated among the non-disabled in the most difficult triathlon in the world.
All three bear witness to the fact that Sport is a means of rebuilding oneself. “What is true for top-level athletes is true for everyone,” says Dr. Philippe Bouhours, a psychiatrist. While Sport’s benefits on physical health are now scientifically well established, its impact on mental health has been less studied.
Research shows that regular physical activity effectively fights stress, anxiety, depression, and even addictions. According to a French study published in the journal PLoS One, generalized anxiety affects 6% of high-level athletes, against 14% of the French population.
“Physical activity plays a preventive role, by limiting the risk of the onset of mental illness,” underlines Dr. Pierre Lavaud, a psychiatrist at the Kremlin-Bicetre hospital. But it also improves symptoms after the onset of the pathology and reduces the risk of relapse.” Sport also accentuates children’s brain development and reduces cognitive decline from a certain age by promoting vascularization of the brain.
All the disciplines involving energy expenditure play this protective role, in particular endurance – running, swimming, brisk walking. The therapeutic gain is optimal when practicing moderate-intensity activity, thirty minutes a day, five times a week.
Neurotransmitters and adrenaline
The explanation is partly physiological. Sport is thought to increase neurotransmitters’ activity in areas of the brain, control emotions, and be involved in the onset of mental illnesses. “When you train your body, you stimulate your brain: today we have proof of this thanks to neuroimaging,” underlines psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik.
According to Dr. Stephane Cascua, sports doctor, adrenaline also explains this phenomenon: “Sport and stress both cause the secretion of this hormone. When you play sports, you train for stress. But the more resistant you are to stress, the less likely you are to fall into depression.” We also know that athletes have a reduction in these hormones at rest and a slowed heart rate.
Athletes are thus better prepared to face the difficult moments of life. “Sport learns to endure suffering to achieve a goal, to tame failure, and to control negative emotions. It is irreplaceable training, testifies a former high-level handball player. It was beneficial to me after my motorcycle accident.”
By providing a sense of accomplishment and mastery, Sport builds self-confidence. A high-level triathlete, Carl Blasco had a childhood painfully marked by academic failure. Sport has allowed him to see himself differently. Author of a legendary try in a match against the All Blacks at the 1999 World Cup, Christophe Dominici, 1.72 m and 80 kg, has for his part proved “that a small, not very strong and full of faults can do things well.”
According to a collective Inserm expert report published in 2008, numerous studies ensure that the regular practice of physical activity – 30 minutes of moderate activity (brisk walking, gymnastics) five days a week or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise intensity (running, swimming…) three times a week – increases the level of self-esteem.
“It reduces the anxiety of the general adult population,” we can read in this document. It decreases the level of depression in a wide variety of populations and should be offered in any treatment for depression.” The presence of a coach or a team reinforces the beneficial effects of physical activity.
As Boris Cyrulnik underlined, during a symposium on resilience through Sport organized by Eurosport, “connecting the five continents by swimming, helping the French team win or simply participating in a marathon are projects of existence which revive the vital impetus.”
High-level Sport: an asset for the disabled
THE 4,200 ATHLETES who took part in the XIVth Paralympic Games, from August 29 to September 9, are unanimous: there is indeed a “before” and an “after” London 2012 for disabled sports. The event imagined in 1948 by Dr. Guttman, a British neurosurgeon, experienced unprecedented widespread enthusiasm this summer, with more than 2.7 million spectators. These Paralympic Games marked the remarkable comeback of adapted Sport and intellectual disabilities in athletics, swimming and table tennis, for a success hailed by Sir Sebastian Coe, patron of the 2012 Olympics, himself: “More than 70% of people see disabled sports. First and foremost as a high-level Sport. “A deserved recognition for athletes with mental, physical, or visual disabilities.