Doctors have long known the research that shows the connection between regular exercise and boosted energy and mood, but it’s only recently they have begun actually proscribing exercise.
Former world champion boxer Duke Mackenzie has taken up that role with relish, working with mental health charity Mind to help people fight their way out of depression.
The Duke, the first British fighter to win in 1992 three world championship titles, flyweight, bantamweight and super bantamweight, retired after 17 years in 1998 but still runs a boxing gym in his native Croydon despite not working within the sport any more.
Through Mind, Mackenzie has for three years taken on groups of 10 mental health service users for weekly non-contact, boxing-style fitness workouts, funded by Sport Relief and Croydon PCT.
Richard Pacitti, chief exec of Croydon Mind, said: “We’ve been getting people involved in active lifestyles for a long time, because exercise is good for people but also to get people out and mixing with others. Staying at home isolated and stewing is only likely to make you more depressed, so anything that gets people out doing something with others will be beneficial.
“It’s not just depression,” he added. “It helps across the whole range of mental health problems, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.”
With one-to-one attention from Mackenzie, mats, punchbags, cycling and running machines and of course the ring, fitness is very much the order of the day. But the act of putting on gloves and looking your ‘opponent’ in the eye comes with other benefits.
“A lot of what I do here is based on building confidence,” Mackenzie explained. “It’s about coping with everyday real life issues that they might need to deal with day to day – you might be able to go out and buy a Coke and a Mars bar, but some of these people may not have left their house for years.”
He added: “I can’t say exactly what it is my course gives them, but whatever it is it works because they keep coming back.”
One of those returnees is Samantha Richardson, 37, who still comes to the gym twice a week since her course finished. After suffering a bout of severe depression, she was recommended Mackenzie’s ‘boxercise’ class by her therapist.
“I was really looking forward to it, to be honest, something really physical rather than just talking about things,” she said. “It was the first thing I’d looked forward to for years.”
Crucially, it is the focus required in the ring that plays the most important part for her.
“Once you start to learn the complexities of boxing, I found it was the only time I could focus completely on something else, with no time for my mind to wander off and think things it shouldn’t.”
It also gets her out of the house and socialising with others. “You’re surrounded by people with their own problems, like you. Sometimes it’s good to be among a group rather than being the odd one out,” Richardson said. “As a result I’ve got involved with other things, I feel more positive.”
Among those working out at the gym, mostly young boys with too much energy or older, fuller-framed men, is Leigh Bailey, 34. He was struck by depression after losing his house, job wife and children, but when offered the boxing sessions couldn’t think of anything less appealing. “Putting a bunch of nutters in a boxing ring and have them beat the hell out of each other sounded like trouble,” he said, drily.
“On my first session, I was hanging around the door, ready to make a run for it, it was that overwhelming,” Bailey recalled. But by the end of the course, he’d put back on the two stone he’d lost and started looking after himself properly again. “I wasn’t going out the house then, but by the end of the course I was back in work.”
Since his course finished, Mackenzie helped Bailey take a qualification in physical training, and he now works in the gym as a trainer alongside Mackenzie.
The former champion said: “I don’t train boxers any more as a rule, this is my vocation now. Since I retired from boxing I’ve been looking for something that would give me equal or more satisfaction that wasn’t managing or promoting or training, and this is it.
“I’ve done different things since retiring, been a commentator at some of the biggest fights, but I’ve never had the feeling I get when I’ve finished training these people – it’s fun, I know I’m doing good and I feel great every time I work out with them.”
Richardson agreed: “Duke is an antidepressant, himself.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, March 2010]