Possibly the world’s most effective mental health device

This remarkable device helps regulate mood, decrease stress, boost memory, promote healthy brain functioning and keep common mental health issues at bay.

I have a quite remarkable device. It helps regulate mood, decrease stress, boost memory, promote healthy brain functioning and keep common mental health issues at bay. It achieves all this by ensuring I receive my daily dose of exercise.

This device doesn’t rely on digital notifications, buzzing alerts or little dinging noises (which can all be quite easily ignored). Instead, it uses extreme emotional blackmail.

This device is called a cattle dog.

I actually have two of these devices. This is how they work…

At some time slightly before dawn I will hear a small, sad whimper. The longer I stay in bed, the louder, sadder and more pathetic this whimpering will become. No matter how little I feel like going for a walk, I will eventually succumb to this emotional blackmail.

I get up, brush my teeth, then take a second or two to mentally prepare myself for the wall of energy that will hit me the moment I open the bathroom door. Stepping out, it is as though these dogs are teenagers in a mosh pit and I am their favourite punk band. Their big happy heads bounce in wild delight as they jump up and down without a care for their own welfare or anyone else’s.

Taking two poorly trained and highly enthusiastic cattle dogs for a walk is no walk in the park… even when that is exactly what it is. Trying to hold on to both leads feels something like land-based water-skiing, multi-directional tug o’ war or being pulled apart by horses.

It is however good exercise. I also get to take in the sunrise, breathe the fresh morning air and converse with others who are attached to similar devices.

No matter in what form you get it, regular exercise is an absolute cornerstone of good mental health. So compelling is the research, that exercise has become a core component of mental health prevention and treatment plans. Psychiatrist Dr Anna Lembke states “exercise has a more profound and sustained positive effect on mood, anxiety, cognition, energy, and sleep than any pill I can prescribe.”

You can of course get regular exercise without getting a dog. This has some major benefits in that all your nice things won’t be destroyed and you won’t have to stop three times in the middle of your exercise to pick up poo.

When we are seeking to get fitter, many of us start by working out our credit card. With great enthusiasm we purchase gym memberships, nice new trainers and miraculous workout machines advertised on infomercials. This is the easy, fun bit. The more challenging part is finding the motivation to attend the gym, take those nice new trainers for a run or use that Abdominator 3000 for something other than hanging clothes on.

For those of us who struggle for self-motivation, it can be useful to take part in group activities. Beyond the quite valuable social benefits, this keeps us accountable to others. We turn up so that our rowing partner isn’t paddling round in circles or so that our synchronised swimming team is in sync, or so that our cheer squad can form a stable human pyramid.

Depending upon how we do it, exercise can be an odious chore or one of our greatest joys. Plonk me in a pool and I will struggle to follow the black line for more than a couple of laps. Take me snorkelling and I will happily swim for an hour. Sit me on an exercise bike and I will instantly be overcome by the pointlessness of it all. Take me to a bush trail and I will barely register the pain as I push the pedals for forty k’s.

If you want an exercise plan that you will actually follow, find something that is fun.  We all need something that we are excited to show up to; something that we can’t wait for each week; something that will make out heart thump and our sweat pour and our spirit re-awaken.

Once we have found that thing, we must prioritise it. Make it a non-negotiable. All those other chores and responsibilities will still be there when we get back from dragon boat racing, salsa classes or touch footy, but they can damn-well wait their turn!

For many of us, a major barrier to participation is that we worry we are not good enough. We believe that we are too unfit, too old or too stiff. We see people who are amazing and think, ‘I’ll never be anywhere near their level’ so we get intimidated and choose to sit it out.

There is no quicker way to take the fun out of anything, than trying to be perfect. Be brave enough to be gloriously amateur! Rather than worry about how we perform in relation to the elite who are taking it all frightfully seriously, we can be in it for the pure joy. This approach is far more self-compassionate and far better for our mental health.

When we give it a crack, we get better. We grow in skill, confidence and fitness. We get in flow and during that glorious time, we become absorbed in our chosen activity. We give our brains a welcome break from worrying about our to-do list, that thing that happened at work or whether we need to pick up more dishwasher tablets at the supermarket. This wonderful flow state is gold. And we must value it as such.

While it’s very easy to get stuck in a sedentary lifestyle, when we add exercise to our regular routine, it can have profound benefits for our brains and bodies.

How you choose to move is up to you. Perhaps the best advice is to find something that you take wild delight in. Simply turn up, enjoy (no matter how bad or good you happen to be) and leave with your body soaked in sweat and your brain bathed in beautiful neurochemicals.

Expert tip: Considering getting an emotionally manipulative dog to take you for regular walks? While dogs can be extremely loveable creatures, it’s not always practical to own one. For the same benefits without the vet bills, offer to take your neighbour’s pooch for a regular stroll.