One in four people encounter a mental health condition in their lifetime, according to leading UK mental health charities including Mind. With mental health diagnoses - including anxiety, depression, stress and low mood - often encountering public stigma, those experiencing these symptoms can often feel isolated and misunderstood.
Through using the services of Ability Bow's disability and long-term health conditions rehabilitation facility, gym member Andrew Stewart - diagnosed with anxiety in 2012 - talks to us about how it's helped deal with life and family stresses, how it has enabled healthy changes and helped him support others in the community.
Andrew Stewart is not shy of tackling change as part of his recovery.
"My father went into care two years ago, which was a difficult time", says Andrew. He adds: "Since attending Ability Bow, I've seen many people address challenges big and small. Coming here has been a truly life-enhancing experience."
Attending three times a week since he became a member in April last year, Andrew's progress has been remarkable.
Since joining Ability Bow, the 56-year-old freelance journalist - a regular contributor to various classical music titles - has lost more than two stone in weight. He notes how the gym's inspiring environment and passion for people have been consistent motivators.
"Body awareness helps reduce anxiety", says Andrew. “Coming here really complements that sense of being in touch with the body.”
He adds: "The people at the gym are great. It’s a totally different atmosphere to what you find in corporate gyms - here you only compete against yourself while being motivated by dedicated instructors; people who instantly know what help to offer and when it’s needed."
While it may have taken him time to develop his long-term physical wellbeing, it was significantly speedier for Andrew to realise that a behavioural change was necessary.
After becoming what he describes as 'unfit' following his elderly parents' respective illnesses - not least by comfort eating as a distraction from stress - Andrew says he discovered Ability Bow after an old eatery he frequented in nearby Roman Road Market closed.
Andrew says: "One day I came to St Paul's Church (where Ability Bow is based) for something to eat in their lovely café. I asked about the gym, where two friends with disabilities were already members. I knew they’d received so much from it and wanted to know more.
"I was shown around the gym and found that, compared to several 'hardcore' gyms I've experienced, this was the place for me. Everyone I met was an inspiration and that encouraged me to get back to training and improve my own health."
For Andrew, life as a freelance music journalist can be stressful.
He writes for titles such as BBC Music Magazine and Classical Music and was founder-director of Southwark Voices, a professional choir that has worked with everyone from Andrea Bocelli to Nigel Kennedy.
After experiencing burnout in his professional life almost seven years ago, he made significant changes to his working life and began attending meditation classes at the London Buddhist Centre (LBC), where he now helps as a volunteer. Andrew has identified and explored the triggers associated with his anxiety at the LBC and turned his experience around to help others there. Andrew notes how Ability Bow has further reinforced his resilience while increasing his capacity to juggle the demands of work and contribute to his parents’ care.
"I’d received help from my GP on several occasions with stress, but things had reached crisis point when I visited him six years ago. He recommended mindfulness meditation, which is what led me to the LBC. I’ve gained so much from their classes and the support of the community there, especially working to help people with anxiety and depression. Since joining Ability Bow, I’ve found a much greater connection between mind and body.
"The gym has really inspired change," says Andrew. “It has given me tools to help myself - not only with strengthening muscles and building cardiovascular fitness but also with helping others with their journeys toward physical and mental wellbeing.
"As a freelance journalist, like so many perfectionists, I regularly used to push myself to the limit and beyond. I was a bit of a fitness fiend too. But I didn’t recognise the need to rest and create space around busy periods. I also ignored the warning signs of prolonged anxiety until they simply overwhelmed me. Since studying meditation at the LBC and attending Ability Bow, I've channelled positive emotion to help myself and others."
Why Andrew Recommends Ability Bow
Given his background in journalism, Andrew is always ready to offer an opinion. But how much does he feel Ability Bow can provide solutions for those seeking a person-centred and empowering gym environment?
"What I've observed here is that so many people are determined to go to the edge of their experience and stay with it," Andrew replies.
"People who join the gym are never judged. There's an acceptance here of the person and what you can do; it’s not about judging perceived weakness. That’s vital for people with mental health conditions and for those with mobility challenges.
"It's not the usual competitive gym culture. That is what makes Ability Bow so inclusive, so special. And the facilities and instructors are geared to encourage, to suit individual realities, to celebrate the person and to give everyone sustainable targets.
"Ability Bow helps people get out and face the day. Without it, that could be a whole lot trickier!"
To find out more about Ability Bow’s range of specialist exercise programmes for people living with disabilities and long-term health conditions - including for those recovering from stokes, experiencing hearing challenges and for those seeking healthy weight and lifestyle support, visit our Activities page.