Podcast - Sports and Mental Health

The link between physical health impacting mental health is nothing new, and committing just to your physical well-being won’t automatically fix your mental state. However, taking care of your body is an important factor to seeking the help you need to achieve a positive state of mind.

Rebecca Gaitch, a consultant at MIGSO-PCUBED UK, interviews Crista Cullen, an Olympic hockey player and gold medalist who competed in Rio 2016 and London 2012 to discuss.

Note: This episode was originally recorded during and in support of our MIGSO-PCUBED Mental Health Awareness Week program.


  • Link between physical activity and mental health [01:12]
  • Advice to get started with exercise [3:30]
  • Adding fitness to your routine [05:59]
  • Maintaining control in an unstable time [10:26]
  • Coping with setbacks [12:00]
  • Tips on remaining positive [14:45]


James Lewis: Good morning, everybody in the MIGSO-PCUBED family, and of course, beyond wherever you are in the world. And welcome to the latest of our Coming Out Stronger podcasts and the last in our sub suites of collaborations between Coming Out Stronger podcast team and the Mental Health Awareness team at MIGSO-PCUBED.

This has been building up to the crescendo, which is our interview with a very special guest today, and that is Crista Cullen. Crista is a Vitality Champion. She’s also an Olympic hockey gold medalist from Rio in 2016, a bronze medalist from London 2012.

She’s already been really helpful and supported and presented to MIGSO-PCUBED on areas in which you’re looking after your physical health can have a fantastic effect on your mental health. Talking to Crista today will be Becky (Rebecca) Gaitch. Becky is a consultant with MIGSO-PCUBED, and she is our Vitality Champion, does a fantastic job in that respect.

So, a very warm welcome to you both, and without further ado, Becky, I’ll leave it to you to have a good chat with Crista.

Link Between Physical Activity and Mental Health

Rebecca Gaitch: Thank you very much. So, as James mentioned, we wanted to cover the link between physical activity and mental health. And who better for us to talk about that with then a gold medal winning Olympic athlete? So maybe Crista, you could start by telling us how you’re looking after your own mental health through physical activity at the moment.

Crista Cullen: Thanks, Becky, and thanks obviously for the opportunity to come and chat to you guys.

And I think right now, it couldn’t be more poignant, as we’re all sort of stuck indoors, no matter where we are in the world in pretty uncertain times for everybody. So, I think there also needs to just be a reality check that sort of everybody is struggling in their own way, to sort of get themselves through this, and that’s okay. You know, sort of the uncertain times has different effects for different people, and it can be relatively disconcerting for us all.

As an athlete, or as an ex-athlete now, and living a life that’s relatively sedentary comparatively to a full-time elite program, it’s been absolutely imperative, if I’m honest, that I just kept active as best I could, obviously following government guidelines through all of this.

So, I actually made the decision to travel back to Kenya, which is my home here in Africa to be with my family. And I think that’s also very important through this time, if you’re lucky enough to have done that in lockdown. But just keeping physically active couldn’t be more important to just release those slightly positive endorphins that you get from exercise and give you some form of a routine in an environment that is disruptive currently.

So, I’ve used exercise quite extensively and try to vary it up as much as I could, obviously with the limitation on the amount of time we can spend outside, it’s been so important to make the most of that. So, whether that’s, you know, a little HIT session or whether that’s just getting a chair and using it to do a whole variety of things, sort of doing dips or various different things and just being as creative as we can.

It’s really this period to keep our bodies active and moving. And we’re stuck behind computers for a lot of the time doing various different Zoom calls, et cetera, and that can be kind of boring. So, it’s just important for us to just keep moving and active, and I’ve just tried to vary it up and basically make sure I get at least an hour to an hour and a half worth of exercise done, whether that’s just in my flat or whether that’s actually out and about.

Advice to Get Started with Exercise

Rebecca Gaitch: That’s great. I think it’s obviously really important to get as much activity as possible when you’re of such a high level of fitness yourself. But what advice would you give to people are in down that may not have as much space, also may not have the same starting level of fitness and motivation?

Crista Cullen: Yeah, I think everybody’s at different stages. So, my first bit of advice, you know, there’s been a bit of a fitness craze that’s happened whilst people have been in lockdown, and that’s because of, you know, desperations get outside, wanting to sort of get busy, and I think, just be honest with yourself as to where you’re starting from would be my first bit of advice.

You know, you’re not going to become an Olympic athlete overnight. So, it’s really, really important. That we just start you steady. And there’s so many different things online. And Joe Wicks has been doing a great platform that a lot of different people have been logging into. Vitality have also been doing a lot of different things by different athletes that are being presented in different consultants to give you the variability. should I say?

But also I think just starting slowly. So, whether that’s out getting walking, getting with your family members, so then sort of slowly building that up, and just utilizing the time that you’re allowed outside for as best you can. It’s amazing what you can fit in to these sort of 20 minute, 40 minute blocks – if there’s commitment to it. But my advice would be don’t hit the ground running too quick, because obviously you need to just appreciate where you’re starting from. And there’s various different ways of tapering things. You know, you don’t need to go into full on press ups (push-ups). You know, you can do them off your knees to begin with, or just against the wall to begin with really, really slow and steady.

And then there’s progressions that you can kind of build stuff up with and that’s just using a press up, ’cause everybody knows how to do a press up, but as we build up, then you start seeing those little gains. In a world that is possibly a little bit more negative at the moment than we’d like, these little nuggets of positivity and feel-good factor and getting a routine that gets you out of bed and moving and active I just think can just give us that little bit of lift that just helps us.

And it’s amazing how little things within the groups of people who are at home with you would actually start helping you and encouraging other people to be able to do various different things, as well. So, that’s really important is to basically use different people at different times to basically be able to leverage off, and use your family members or your siblings or whoever you’re in lockdown with.

Adding Fitness to Your Routine

Rebecca Gaitch: So do you think for me, I kind of routine with whoever you’re in lockdown with would be good way to tackle any struggles that you’re going through together, and also add a bit of fitness in there, as well?

Crista Cullen: Yeah, I think so. People feed off other people, and one of the hardest things through this pandemic has been the lack of connectivity that I think a lot of people have suffered, me included.

It’s not the same being in and amongst an office environment, or being in and amongst colleagues, or whatever regularly to be able to sort of get that interaction and that fulfillment. I find a lot of what I used to do was being with big groups of people presenting, and suddenly that contact is taken away from us and it’s really difficult when it’s sort of cut off like that. And that’s very natural. We feed off each other.

And so if we are in lockdown with various people, or if you do happen to be on your own, you know, there is ways we can best manage that. And I do think, Rebecca, that element of routine and getting us out of bed, because a lot of people I’ve been speaking to sort of slowly, slowly let themselves slip and just stay in bed longer, and longer, and longer, watch more and more films and all of those things.

But that’s very natural to do that. So, you know, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’m just saying, if you just set up a structure. So, I do the same thing. So, my alarm goes off at 6:15, whether I’d like it or not, because it just gets me active, out of bed, and I do my session really nice and early. And then I know I’ve done it. And then those positive endorphins that you get through exercise, which, as an athlete, we end up getting relatively addicted to.

That just sets me up for the day. And that just makes me feel positive. And I want to attack things and work out, right, what do I need to do next? And it just helps me feel more stimulated.

And in these times, it’s easy to sort of just keep dropping and dropping, and we need to almost take responsibility personally and together with the people we’re with to try and help them. 

So, what I’ve done is get my parents to do gym sessions with me. Now, my parents never do gym sessions, and suddenly the poor guys have been pulled into sort of doing all this stuff, and now they’re seeing the reward, and now they’re actually starting to actually really enjoy it, which is fulfilling for me to see as well.

Rebecca Gaitch: So, it’s not just about motivating yourself, but it’s about encouraging other people to get into the same habits and routines that really do help them through times of instability like this?

Crista Cullen: Yeah, but I would say that ’cause I come from a team sport, so I’m very used to doing things together, and that’s what’s been hard because that bit of it’s taken away, but we’ve got to make the best of our situations, no matter what that may be.

And so, yeah, I just think that constant push to get that regularity, and that positivity, and basically manage that process as best we can, if we can get that pick-up. And exercise, I think is just such a lovely way to be able to feel a bit more fulfilled and feel a little bit more energetic, because if you are active, then you do get a boost in energy levels, and that does sort of help us be more productive.

And do all of those things. I’m not saying don’t get your Netflix on and watch films. That’s absolutely acceptable, but I’m just saying like a balance of being active and then give yourself a reward which is watching a film on Netflix or something like that, which is a nice way of looking at it.

Rebecca Gaitch: Exactly, a little bit of both is always good.

Crista Cullen: I really liked your Kindness Bingo, and do you know what? I think all of this is connected, Rebecca. I’m not here to be banging the exercise drum, albeit that just happens to be how I feel more fulfilled. It is also how you on an individual level feel fulfilled. 

So, if kindness and what you guys have done at MIGSO-PCUBED previously, Kindness Bingo, or just doing a good deed for somebody, or going out and planting a tree, or doing something for the environment, you know, all of those things, I think connected together with a bit of exercise thrown in there and makes us better rounded in an environment that is a little bit disruptive and we’re all wobbling and that’s okay.

You know, but just doing lots of little things accumulatively, I think, helps us all feel more fulfilled and the knock on effect, if you’re lucky enough to be able to give that energy to other people, I think it can be really rewarding. And I’ve seen it firsthand in the lockdown environment that I’m in, where you see somebody, you know, who’s 65 with underlying health conditions getting in the gym and doing something for 45 minutes every day. And it makes me really proud of them.

Maintaining Control in an Unstable Time

Rebecca Gaitch: That’s really great. You mentioned before that you’re a little bit of a control freak. So is exercise a way for you to maintain some control during times of instability?

Crista Cullen: Absolutely, yes. I have to say I am a complete control freak, and I think we’re used to coming from an elite environment, used to a lot of routine that kind of got taken away from us quite quickly, and in an environment where we genuinely, I mean, a lot of us are plugging in to BBC and listening to the news.

And it’s not pretty at the moment, and it’s a downward spiral, and we’re feeling pulled down, and a bit of routine and controlling something that’s within our grasp to be able to control. We can’t control what’s happening around the world, as much as I wish we could to help those that are suffering.

But what I find fulfilling is just knowing what I can do, whether that’s, you know, helping my neighbors, or whether that’s controlling my diet, and of course my exercise routine, and trying to keep it as varied as possible so that the boredom factor doesn’t come in. It’s really, really important. I think to control the controllables. I mean, we say it in sport all the time. And it’s not easy in the current climate to control those things.

So, yeah, I think being somebody of that ilk, you know, I understand my own personality, and therefore, it’s just accepting that, and then using it to our advantage where we can. So, I totally control my body through this period because it’s something I know that’s within my grasp to be able to do that.

Coping with Setbacks

Rebecca Gaitch: Thank you. That’s really good. So, one of the hardest things for me has been the cancellation of sporting events that I have been working towards. I know that you had a place in the London marathon, and I’m sure many other events, as well. How are you coping with setbacks? Like these types of things being canceled?

Crista Cullen: Oh, geez. I’m like everybody else, Rebecca. I think there’s frustration that people can’t watch the footie on the weekends, all the way up to, they had signed up for a Tough Mudder or a worst case scenario, I signed myself up for a London marathon. Postponements, and setbacks, injuries, and things like that, they’re just part and parcel of life.

I have to say I had done so much training, and I’m no marathon runner, and I had done so much training in the buildup for the London marathon at the end of April. And when they announced that they were going to extend it to the 4th of October, or postpone it until then.

I honestly, I was like, “I don’t think I could do this training anymore. This is so tough”. Like going out and running half marathons, and two hours out there, plodding on the streets of London. Oh, well I don’t find it fun. You know, I’m not a runner. And so I’ve had to learn to just almost taper down my training to then try and ramp it up again, if I am lucky enough to get back to UK and run it on the 4th of October.

But I think the learning from this is that setbacks in life and things like that, they’re going to come at us. There’s just, obviously it’s something that’s massively out of our control, and that we are in no way of knowing when this is going to end, which is also a little bit frustrating.

And we’ve just got to find other ways, I guess. And so, what I’ve done is reduced the amount of training, that specifically running training that I’m doing, and just doing a bit more body maintenance stuff. So, trying to build up my robustness, we used to call it when I was a full time athlete. So that injury prevention thing, all of those little exercises, you know, like little car phrases and things that you just forget to do because you never have the time. I’m starting to do a lot more of those, which will definitely put me in better stead when I start ramping up the mileage again. But that’s very much specific to sort of marathon running.

There are just these setbacks that do come at us, and we’ve just got to find that little bit of motivation, I guess, to just keep plodding. And I’m not saying it’s easy at all. It’s really, really tough to keep positive, but little by little and just chipping away at it, and we’ll start seeing those little gains again.

And from that positivity, it then grows again. And before we’ll get back on our TV screens, because I know everyone’s got to, but it’s not there yet. Whether that’s with crowds or without, and the sporting arena will start happening again. We just got to keep believing that.

Tips on Remaining Positive

Rebecca Gaitch: Do you have any final tips for how to remain positive for the moment?

Crista Cullen: I can’t reinvent the wheel and everybody’s different. I think my final tip around it all is it’s okay to not be okay. Do you know what I mean? Through this period, everybody is going through very, very difficult circumstances, and I think mental health is something that’s spoken about a lot more now than it ever has been. And utilizing our networks, whichever way that may be, is just be open to have vulnerable conversations.

Sport in my lifetime has, because of the emotion attached to it, you’re able to show your vulnerabilities regularly, and what I try and encourage with some of the businesses that I work with to be allowed to show that vulnerability to your colleagues, or your family members, or whatever, and be open and honest about where you’re at, because that’s the only way we can all start helping each other.

And that’s what it is. We’re all in this together. I mean, it’s shown on a Thursday evening when everybody claps for carers, you know. We are all in this together. And we all will be feeling different emotions at different times, and that doesn’t make it a bad thing. And just being open and honest with where we’re at and willing to sort of share those vulnerabilities, whether that’s in the workplace or out of it, because we all feel those things sometimes.

And sometimes we just need, you know, a little arm around us or somebody just to have a conversation. And that’s okay to reach out in these sort of times right now.

Rebecca Gaitch: Exactly. And that is such an important message. Thank you very much, Crista. It’s been lovely to talk to you again.

Crista Cullen: Thanks, Rebecca. Great to be on, and good luck to all of you guys out there.

James Lewis: So, thank you so much to both view of you, to Becky and, of course, to Crista, for some really insightful and quite inspiring thoughts for us to take away. Thank you for everybody involved. Not least indefatigable sound engineer and editor Charles Willman. Have a great weekend everybody, and thank you very much for listening. Goodbye.

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