How parkour helps me manage my stress

28 September 2020

Crohn's and Colitis can have a profound impact on mental health and wellbeing. We spoke to Olly about how he found his positive mental attitude and how parkour helps him maintain it.

This article was originally written for our award-winning membership magazine Connect. To find out more about the benefits of being a member with us, or to join from only £1.25 a month, click here.

Speaking ahead of his A-levels in 2018, Olly was hoping his Colitis would not cause him trouble. “I have found that naturally, with what it is, my Colitis does sort of come back when I’m in stressful situations so I’m optimistically looking forward to my A-levels,” he says, laughing. “But I keep going and hopefully won’t get any flare-ups. I am feeling very comfortable right now. I forget sometimes that I’ve got something wrong with me.” As most people with Crohn’s or Colitis know, this is a great place to be. "And I have never had to go into hospital for a flare-up. I am very fortunate in that sense.” Olly says his sense of wellbeing comes from eating a healthy vegetarian diet, and his love of parkour – which involves acrobatics such as flips, jumps, twists and turns while moving through, around and over obstacles such as walls or playground equipment.

Parkour is my way of escaping everything

It was a different picture when he sat his GCSEs. “About a month or two before my exams, my grandmother passed away and it was a weird few months… I had quite a few flare-ups then.” Olly was also just getting used to life with Colitis at that point, having recently received his diagnosis. For a year or two before his GCSEs he’d been back and forth to the doctors. “I was getting a lot of cramps and pains, and it took a lot of the energy out of me – and there were symptoms like blood in the stools and stuff like that,” he says. “I got diagnosed through an endoscopy.” He says he found his diagnosis helpful as he could understand what he was dealing with – although it wasn’t always easy. “I remember being on macrogol for a while, to soften the stools, which was foul. The dosage I had varied on how I was doing and sometimes at school if I was on a stronger dosage of it, I might have been a bit panicky about it,” he says.

Although currently on mesalazine (an anti-inflammatory), Olly has stronger medication and, if needed, can have enemas should his condition worsen. “Everything is under control for now, and I know that if there is a flare-up, I have stages I can go to that help me keep that under control as well.” Although mature beyond his years, Olly admits that having a good mental attitude is something he has had to learn. “Everyone has those moments and thoughts where even if it’s the slightest flare-up you think, ‘I don’t really want to be dealing with this again right now.’ It puts your mood down without you realising it.” He says his mates have noticed when this dark cloud descends. “I have had my friends from school notice a personality change in me,” he adds. “But I’ve got much better at controlling that recently. If I have a flare-up, I feel better about it these days because it’s just a reminder that I need to keep on top of everything and stay in the position I am.”

I’ve learned that Colitis is something I am going to have, it’s something I’ve got, and I just take each day as it comes

As well as carefully monitoring what he eats, Olly is able to use his exercise regime as a way of destressing. “When I first got into parkour, I spent three years or so watching videos online and teaching myself how to do stuff in my garden and in the park in my village [in the Lincolnshire Wolds] … I thought I’d like to teach myself a back flip. So I went to the park, spent weeks trying to figure out how to do it, to get myself ready mentally,” he says. Eventually he succeeded and that was it, he was hooked. “I fell in love with everything to do with parkour.” Now, partly thanks to passing his driving test, he’s not just leaping around his village but also travels to nearby Lincoln to meet others who have the parkour bug. Despite injuring his ankle last year, he’s back on his feet and can do back, front, side and wall flips.

“I taught myself to do a cork before I did my ankle in, which was quite good fun. It’s kind of like a back flip but you go off of one leg and then sort of go horizontal in the air and then do a 360 spin in the air, while doing a flip.” For Olly, the appeal is the challenge. “There’s nothing better than being able to do something,” he says. “It’s not just getting from one place to another, it’s not just getting over physical obstacles, it’s getting over mental ones because a lot of the time it’s your head that stops what your body can do. Which I sort of proved to myself when I found parkour, when I did the back flip. It looks bonkers and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to do it and the one thing that’s stopping you is your head.” He attributes parkour to helping him cope with his condition. “I genuinely think parkour is the main thing that’s helped me be in such a positive position about my Colitis. You can’t sit and mope all day – especially about my Colitis, which flares far more with stress. If you sit down and stress all day you are just going to make yourself stressed and what do you expect other than more symptoms? So you go out, enjoy yourself, prove to yourself you can be normal and enjoy life, and do what you can.” Olly says he feels blessed to have such a strong support network. His family – mother Sarah, father Michael and sister Caitlin – have been “unbelievably great”.

Although he could have moved to a hospital closer to home, his parents are still happy to accompany him to see specialists at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham – and they help him keep his feet firmly on the ground. His friends reacted with typical teenage jocularity at first, joking about “the Robocop instrument” that did his endoscopy. “But I think the more I live with it,” says Olly, “they have got used to it and realised what it sort of means to me. So they have become a lot more supportive in the sense that if I am feeling a bit low and I say, ‘It’s down to my Colitis,’ they’ll say, ‘Well, if you need anything, let me know.’” He says he doesn’t shy away from explaining his illness to those who ask. “I explain what it is and that I’ve got it and there’s not much I can do other than deal with it."

I try my best to show it is something you’re stuck with but in a way that doesn’t lead to people feeling sorry for me. I prefer feeling like I’m winning. Positivity is key.

With his A levels out of the way, Olly made plans to study psychology at Lincoln University, with the end goal of becoming a mental health counsellor. He says he chose this route after watching a close friend being diagnosed with depression. “He was always the mad, crazy kid, the source of laughter … the nicest guy I have ever met and probably ever will meet, and he just completely flipped. He became the polar opposite and it was weird adjusting. I have been trying my best to help him as much as I can because obviously people like me and his other friends – we can only ever do so much. But he’s improving, which is really nice to see. But that kind of inspired me to try to get out there and try to do my part for people with mental health issues.” Olly says his own health journey has made him more self-aware too. “I’ve had times that I’ve thought it’s a possibility my condition could get worse. But I don’t want to spend my life worrying about something that could happen when it might not.” A Crohn’s & Colitis UK member and supporter, Olly says hearing about other people’s health journeys helps. “I’ve read about people where [their condition] has progressed a lot more and they’ve had surgery, and there are a lot of stories of people coming out 10 times stronger. It’s beautiful to read. People are doing amazingly, and they show so much courage."

I think those stories need to be told – it lowers the worry level. If it does happen to me, then I know these people have managed it, and why can’t I?

How to tackle stress

We all have to deal with a certain amount of stress in our lives, but exams, upcoming events and life changes can all make it worse. Here are some tips for decreasing the amount of stress in your life:

  • Learn to say no without feeling guilty
  • Build in some time to relax every day – deep breathing, a bath, yoga or simply listening to music can help
  • Find an exercise you enjoy and schedule it into your week
  • Talk to a friend, a family member or someone you trust
  • Write a journal or find likeminded people on well-established online forums to chat with
  • Take breaks such as days out, short holidays or even just an hour away from the demands of your day
  • Speak to your GP or health professional if you feel things are getting on top of you
  • Make sure you get enough sleep
  • Avoid too much caffeine in your diet

become a member