The Importance of Physical Activity on Your Mental Health: An interview with Michael Watson, MBE
In my life, I have battled a gambling addiction and a brain tumour — and alongside these I experienced depression. Exercising through those tough times has helped me focus and keeps me moving forward.
The British ex-boxer Michael Watson, who uses exercise as a tool to manage his mental health, was a hero of mine as a youngster. Seeing how he has dealt with adversity encouraged me to approach his agent, Brendan O'Connor, with a request for an interview. Recently, I was able to sit down for an intimate chat with Michael, where we discussed his brain injury, the positive impact of physical activity on his mental health and the MBE he was awarded. He also had plenty of advice for anyone struggling.
Michael suffered a life-changing brain injury in a fight with fellow boxer Chris Eubank that left him unable to walk or speak for the following eight months. The biggest fight of Michael’s life was not in that one in a boxing ring, but the recovery that followed, described by his neurologist Peter Hamlyn as "extraordinary". In my previous blog, I presented my interview with Charlie Duffield who talked about his battle with a gambling addiction. Now I am focusing on telling the story of Michael Watson and his recovery from life-changing injuries.
The night Michael's life changed
Michael Watson had the W.B.O (World Boxing Organisation) Super-Middleweight world title in his grasp, ahead of Chris Eubank on points as the bell for the 12th and final round sounded at White Hart Lane in September 1991. In the 12thth round, Michael’s life changed in a second: Chris Eubank, from the brink of defeat, unleashed a devastating uppercut that made Michael collapse in the ring.
Unbelievably, there were no ambulances or paramedics at the event, and as a result of the delay in his care, Michael's brain was deprived of oxygen for 8 minutes. Overall, there was a nearly 30-minute delay until Michael received care in a neurological unit. Subsequently, he spent 40 days and 40 nights in a coma and had six operations to remove a life-threatening blood clot from his brain.
Now 56-years-old, despite receiving life-changing brain injuries, Michael has dedicated himself to helping other disabled people in sport and was awarded an MBE in 2012 in recognition for his excellent work for disabled sport. Michael's MBE was awarded due to his consistent campaigning for disability sport, calling for improved disabled access to gyms and fitness centres. Michael described the feeling of receiving an MBE as “the proudest moment of my life”.
The positive effect of physical activity on mental health
According to the Mental Health Foundation, participation in physical activity can help improve mental health. It provides countless benefits, both physical and mental. The benefits of physical activity on mental health is endorsed by the NHS, especially for people experiencing mild to moderate depression.
"I spent a long time in a coma and then had a lot of frustration when I came out of the coma. I had to keep the faith and draw strength from somewhere”. Michael continued: "Muhammed Ali [the boxing legend] visited and told me that he knew I would recover. It resonated with me and gave me extra determination to prove the doctors wrong who said I would never walk again. Eventually, I learnt how to walk and talk again."
Then Michael added: "I even managed to complete the London Marathon, which took me over six days. Completing the marathon made me so proud and helped me with my state of mind. I wanted to show people even when the worst thing happens, so much can still be achieved."
Many sportspersons, including Tyson Fury, have proven how having an exercise schedule continues to help them overcome their mental health woes. Michael, like Tyson, sticks to a rigid exercise schedule every day, which has helped him avoid falling into further mental health problems. Michael has set himself goals to achieve such as lasting longer on the static bike and walk further daily to push himself.
Michael’s experience of overcoming mental health issues through sport
"I think sport is great for adults and children and teaches discipline and teamwork", Michael continued. "Studies have proven that it releases endorphins, making it a great and productive outlet to improve mental health. The feeling I get when I work out every day is unrivaled. I am determined to push myself. I want to test myself when I walk and work out on the static bike every day. The feeling I get from working out is phenomenal. It works wonders for my mental health."
Seeing Michael finishing the London Marathon, and noticing how exercise, in general, has helped him deal with his life-changing injuries, is truly awe-inspiring. Despite Michael’s struggles, hearing how he wants to inspire others despite his battles is a truly inspirational message.
Mental health woes in boxing
Boxers and other sportspeople seem to have an issue retiring when they are at the peak of their ability, and those that do retire are often tempted back.
"A lot of sportspersons struggle to retire; many have to continue for financial reasons." Michael added: "Some make comebacks because they miss the adulation. Some will not know how to function without competitive sport."
According to Dr Margaret Goodman (Neurologist and former ringside Physician), depression is a big problem for boxers. "Depression is quite prevalent among boxers," says Dr Goodman. "It is almost never diagnosed until it’s too late, and it manifests itself in so many negative ways."
Retirement is a difficult option to take for any sportsperson. Michael, due to his injuries from that night in 1991, didn’t have a choice when retirement happened in his life.
Michael continues to show us every day that, even when the hard times come, we can all continue to lead productive and healthy lives.
When asking Michael why he is passionate about helping others he said, brimming with pride: “It makes me feel alive when I help others”. Having survived a brain tumour I remember feeling a sense of loss during that time in my life. It often felt like the old me had died following the tumour and that was challenging to deal with.
Michael has shown how powerful having a sense of purpose can be in combating mental health woes. He has a determination which is so apparent when talking to him. Whether he’s working out for longer than the day before, or he’s helping disabled people in sport through his campaigning for better access to sport for disabled people, there’s a clear fire burning bright in him - and that fire in him is infectious.