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Work it out: Cheap exercise options in Brussels

Friskis & Svettis
11:11 20/05/2018
You don't have to sign up to an expensive health club to get fit in Brussels - and getting exercise is good for your mental wellbeing as well

Running & walking

The Maison des Femmes in Schaerbeek hosts a free coached jogging group every Tuesday morning in Josaphat Park in co-operation with the social running project Les Gazelles de Bruxelles. The organisation aims to bring people from very different social groups together via various sports. Most municipalities offer activities at little or no cost, including running groups and Parcours Vita, a trail with fitness tasks adapted for all ages (check your town hall website). Or take a hike every Sunday in Brussels and Wallonia, thanks to signposted 5-20km trails in each province, organised by Marche Adeps. Don’t miss out on the bar at the end of each walk!

Swimming

Local pools are often more than a place for swimming lengths. Look up programmes for aqua aerobics, private lessons and watersports, while some centres boast gyms, sauna and spas, all reasonably priced. The popular Poseidon in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert provides free entry every Sunday morning for under-10s accompanied by an adult (must live in the commune or Kraainem).

Park activities

Its name translates as ‘healthy and sweaty’ in Swedish, and it’s a Brussels institution. Friskis & Svettis offers a varied programme of inclusive, affordable exercise classes and running groups. In July and August, join free classes in Cinquantenaire Park. Lending itself perfectly to outdoor practice, and also free, check out the tai chi training classes in selected parks (plus Place Albertine) from May to September.

Street workout

Not for the stiff-kneed or faint-hearted, this is the full urban experience: leaping, jumping and tumbling on, off and around landmarks in the city. Xtreme Team Parkour aims to get from A to B in the shortest, most efficient way possible. Various disciplines of the sport are practised in Schaerbeek, Saint-Gilles and Bockstael.

Cycling

Fans of two wheels have numerous options around Brussels, from cycle tracks to downloading a green itinerary app for a back-to-nature experience in the woody southern suburbs, including the hilly terrain of the Sonian Forest. Alternatively, join a tour run by one of the many operators such as Pro Velo, or head out of town and take advantage of the extensive Ravel network.

Cycling

'Our bodies were made to move'
Lise Skinnebach, clinical psychologist and helpline supervisor at Community Help Service (CHS) explains the mental health benefits of exercise

The importance of mental health is widely appreciated, and today diagnoses such as depression, anxiety or stress are generally recognised. Such diseases have become much more common than they used to be. While people may be more or less disposed to mental illnesses, research has long concluded that they are often lifestyle-related.

One feature characterising modern life is physical inactivity. Not only do we not hunt or gather any more, nor do we manually work the soil, and the majority of us get transported to and from the different stationary positions we hold behind a desk or in front of a TV.

This inactivity has long been linked to both physical and emotional disorders. Our bodies were made to move, and when we don’t move, tension increases. What first manifests as physical tension often produces mental tension, and stress, due to long term release of cortisol.

Those who manage to do sports, in addition to having other treatments, say that it feels good to be able to do something to improve their condition themselves, and science provides good explanations for this:

  • Physical activity helps produce endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers, and endorphins help to regulate mood and relax the mind. 
  • Exercise also tires the body and makes it easier to sleep – something that many anxiety sufferers struggle with – and better sleep will reduce stress, which is crucial for anxiety management.
  • Exercise reduces cortisol and helps to bring it back to normal levels. 
  • Exercise is also important for a regulated immune system, as well as a healthy hormone balance.

In addition to those physiological effects, the psychological effects of exercise include heightened self-esteem, the interruption of negative thoughts, and an increase in healthy social contact. Not surprisingly, together, all these changes can vastly improve overall quality of life and have a preventive effect on those who are disposed to suffer from mental illnesses.

Brussels 20k

Hyping exercise as a cure-all is, however, problematic. Certainly it can galvanise a depressed person or help give structure to someone learning to control ADHD. But exercise alone will rarely cure someone with a diagnosable mental disease; a mental diagnosis isn’t overcome by running three times a week.

However, symptoms such as sadness, lack of concentration and mild stress may be addressed, prevented, cured, or better coped-with, solely through regular exercise. And coping is absolutely key - it is about making sure that you’re spending time in ways that are good for your mental health.

The take-away message here is that exercise is important for both our physical health and our psychological health, and that it is a relevant part of ensuring sound management of human emotions. When exercise is regularly practised it provides a sense of achievement and self-esteem.

At Community Help Service (CHS), we acknowledge the connection between exercise and mental wellbeing. We want to practise what we preach and therefore representatives and friends of CHS will put on the CHS T-shirt and be out on the streets to take part in this year's Brussels 20km run on 27 May. If you spot the CHS T-shirt please cheer us on. We are hoping to raise funds to help finance our English-speaking helpline (02 648 4014) – confidential, anonymous and 24/7 – a crucial service to members of the international community in Belgium who need help and find it easier to express themselves in English. 

Written by Sarah Crew, Lise Skinnebach