John Allison is an important and experienced voice in the conversation around movement and mental health. Drawing on his 24 years in the army, John founded StreetGym® an urban group workout designed to relieve stress and build confidence whilst taking people into the heart of the city. In this interview, John shares a fascinating insight into his military experiences, his own mental health and the core values and benefits of StreetGym®.
Who inspired your passion for outdoor activity as you were growing up?
My grandfather lived on the edge of Dartmoor in a house believed to be the basis for Baskerville Hall in Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Every summer, I had access to 150 acres of woodland, disused copper mine workings, tunnels and shafts. From sunrise to sunset I’d be outside moving and exploring. My grandfather alluded to the mental health benefits of movement throughout his life. He used to say “if you are ever feeling down, go and do something physical.” He didn’t like to see people sitting down for too long and was a force to be reckoned with, even in his nineties.
The benefits of being physically fit were repeatedly illustrated throughout my military career.
My mother and father promoted outdoor movement from a very early age too, every Sunday we’d head off on long walks through the countryside and they always encouraged me to go and play outdoors. Even today at 87, my father regularly walks 6 miles at a brisk pace. Often when he finds a little incline he’ll speed up and calls it his “cardio workout”.
Reflecting on your 24 years in the army, did physical fitness help you cope with the situations you faced?
I joined the Army at 16, specialising in Bomb Disposal and Counter-Terrorist Search with the Royal Engineers for 12 years and later in weapons intelligence with the Intelligence Corps. Military deployments took me all over the world and I met some incredible people in remarkable places. My colleagues and I got to see the best and worst of human nature.
The benefits of being physically fit were repeatedly illustrated. While deployed in South Asia our operation was suddenly halted and we ended up confined to a small compound for several weeks. It was a tense time as we didn’t know when we were going to get home or if we’d be held hostage or attacked. Every day we’d do some form of physical training and I firmly believe that helped all of us to cope mentally with the situation.
Overseas deployments often meant working in high threat and high tempo environments. Without a doubt, physical fitness gave us mental fitness too, enabling us to perform optimally for longer periods in high stress environments. On one occasion I received an unexpected phone call while serving in Northern Ireland, saying that I was going to Baghdad to join the US led Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell (CEXC). Such was the nature of Army life, you had to be physically and mentally prepared to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. If you weren’t prepared you couldn’t do the job.
How did you cope with the transition to civilian life both physically and emotionally?
While I was serving I lost my brother to anaphylactic shock and later my mother to cancer. I think I tried to forget about their passing, almost hiding it as the Army was no place to show emotions. Two years after I’d left the Army I was dealing with the transition from a long military career to civilian life. That’s when I realised that I’d never really grieved for my mother or brother, it was a difficult time but a valuable learning experience.
I didn’t really sleep for five days and was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder
The military was all I really knew and if I’m honest I didn’t really have a clue about business, tax returns and so on. I worked myself into the ground and my resilience was low, I wasn’t part of a community anymore, I felt the loss of the Army family and began reflecting on my mother and brother’s death too. My father then went into hospital for an operation and I thought I was going to lose the only family I had. I didn’t really sleep for five days and was ultimately diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
To try to make myself sleep I began running up and down some nearby hills at night, I felt like I needed to “man up” and sort myself out. Unfortunately this only exacerbated the problem and made me even more wired. I quickly realised that exercise can be a major stressor too. This isn’t discussed enough particularly in a mental ill-health context. Instead we’re bombarded with the generic messages “no pain, no gain,” “exercise is medicine” and more. If people are dealing with mental injury or are under a great deal of pressure, how they move and when they move is very important.
What steps did you take to support your recovery?
I took some time out, away from London and away from work. I was fortunate to be living in the countryside at the time, on a farm in Kent and the owner had a huge vegetable patch. As I was self-employed she offered to pay me to tidy it up. That combination of meaningful, purposeful and hard manual work in the natural environment was a massive tonic.
Being on the water in my kayak has also been deeply restorative for me. I like to go out on the sea in the early morning and fish. It’s that rhythmic action of paddling and feeling the water beneath you. Whatever I catch is my breakfast. There is nothing like powering out under your own steam at the break of dawn, just you and the gentle lap of the sea. One time I found myself in the middle of a shoal of Sea Bass, the sea was like a mill pond and the fish were jumping everywhere. I wasn’t even fishing at the time but got immense pleasure from the beauty of nature all around me.
If you’re suffering from anxiety you probably want to avoid high impact work for a time, in favour of gentle, rhythmic exercise like swimming, walking or light jogging. I believe that rhythmic exercise can be likened to inducing a trance state in hypnotherapy. It helps to push all the noise to one side and allows the ideas to flow.
What inspired the concept and values behind StreetGym?
When I lived in Kent I used to run what I called Natural Gym sessions for a local family every Sunday. The father worked in a high pressure job in the city, so it was a great opportunity for him to work out with his children and relax in nature. I’d take them all running, jumping and crawling around the woods near Tunbridge Wells. I used to ensure that we had to negotiate obstacles that required teamwork too, so it was a real bonding experience for all. One day the mother pulled me to one side and said that her husband was a different man after the sessions, relaxed and happy and the children loved it too.
In 2011 I found myself studying in London and really missed military group training so decided to run some StreetGym® style sessions for other members of my course. We didn’t have convenient access to a park and and I wanted to explore my local surroundings too. Farrgindon was full of little passageways, stairs and street furniture perfect for StreetGym® and we had a lot of fun. I also wanted time efficient training and this was it, quite literally as soon as we left the university we were in the streets working out. No need to travel to a park or gym, we were already in it!
Later I obtained my Personal Trainer (PT) and Outdoor Fitness Coach qualification so started running regular StreetGym® sessions in Southwark, come rain, snow or shine. At the same time I became the in-house Health and Wellbeing manger for two large marketing agencies in London. StreetGym® was included in the wellbeing programs that I developed and employees loved it. It took off from there.
What can someone expect from a Streetgym session?
Much of what I do with StreetGym® is based on my experience on the military Assault Course. Most people don’t realise that the military necessity of having to overcome obstacles in the field and assault defensive positions shaped military physical training methods and is also the basis for many civilian fitness disciplines we see today.
Typically I run a one hour training session. We jog from the client’s premises to a warm up area then set off on what I call an urban adventure. We jog from workstation to workstation before returning to the cool-down location close to the start. A workstation in StreetGym® terms refers to items of street furniture, architectural features and gradients on which we perform a variety of body weight exercises.
I want to show people that they can really immerse themselves in the urban environment and find new meaning in it
All too often we associate movement with the gym or an exercise class but the gym in some ways is a by-product of our sedentary lives. Years ago we were far more active in our day to day lives and we didn’t need a gym, our movement during the course of our day to day life was enough.
Crucially I want to help people to empower themselves and show them how to use what they already have around them without having to pay for gym membership or equipment. I want to instill the “improvise, adapt and overcome” mindset so prevalent in the military. It opens up a world of opportunity mentally and physically.
What have you seen as the physical and well being benefits of these sessions?
Newfound confidence and all-round physical fitness levels have significantly improved. We have our regulars too so we’re like a little family. That human connection is so often missing in the city which can often be seen as a concrete jungle conjuring up all sorts of negative images. I want to show people that they can really immerse themselves in their urban surroundings and find new meaning in it. We live in very controlled environments, particularly in the city which stifles creativity and our ability to have fun.
In many ways StreetGym® gives participants the authority to play again in the city streets. Some newcomers initially feel a bit self-conscious hanging off a stair rail while city workers and tourists walk past. I show them how to do it safely and everyone soon forgets about other people around them. I often hear people say “I haven’t laughed as much since I was a child.” This is extremely restorative and frees the mental and physical shackles associated with modern urban life. It’s funny, on a number of occasions tourists want to get involved too. I’ve had ten French students, Spanish guys and a Japanese family joining in, it all adds to the sense of fun.
What do you see as the main causes of mental health issues in society today?
The loss of strong family and local connections for one. We’re in a transitory world, where people travel frequently and no longer live in close-knit communities. I’ve worked with clients who’ve moved to London and have struggled with feelings of loneliness and lost connection despite being in a city of around 8 million people! Also our increasingly sedentary, indoor and automated lifestyles – I still remember having to get off the sofa to change the TV channel. Then there is social media and smartphones. I’m certainly not anti-technology in fact I think it’s amazing when used with care and we mustn’t blame the technology itself, it’s how we individually interact with it.
One of the main issues though is being “always on” in work and at home, where employees are having to work across time zones or expected to respond to clients 24/7. Sleep deprivation is a major issue too. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation has been used during interrogations and why extreme deprivation can lead to temporary psychosis, it has a devastating impact both mentally and physically.
How can we support those that are struggling to find the motivation to exercise?
Encourage them to find training buddies at work or home or join a local Parkrun for example. Sign up for an event, no matter how big or small, particularly with friends and colleagues. This makes us feel that we have a concrete reason for training and of course being tied to an event date really helps with motivation too. If the individual doesn’t have a large circle of friends, I’d recommend checking out Meet-up groups in the local area, there is so much choice now. Taking part in an event to raise money for a charity close to our heart can also be a powerful force. We often associate getting fit with running or going to a gym but that’s not to everyone’s taste. It’s about identifying your passions, that could be dancing or gardening, anything that involves movement and ideally being with other like minded people. Even voluntary work can be a great way to get fit. I used to be a National Trust volunteer and ended up in some amazing places, out in nature, lifting, carrying and working with incredible people.
In terms of the current wellness offering, there is too much emphasis on coping mechanisms and symptom management as opposed to real preventative training. That’s something I am addressing with my work at StreetGym® and also Motion to Mind™ .
To hear more from John you, check out his brand new podcast Left of Burnout .