There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a significant impact on many people’s mental health. Poor mental health was the number one reason for time off work across the UK in 2021, accounting for 19 per cent of all lost working time across the country. At the same time, record numbers of children and adults are being referred to mental health services.

Looking after our mental wellbeing must be a priority as we enter another uncertain year. The good news is that there are things we can all do to protect our mental health and getting moving is one of the most important.

Regular exercise is proven to lift your mood when you’re feeling low. Moving more and sitting less releases feel-good hormones that give you more energy. It improves your sleep and also helps to manage anxiety and stress.

You don’t need to start running marathons to feel the benefits; you can take part in an exercise class at your local leisure centre, get on your bike or go for a walk in the park. The key is finding something you enjoy and aiming to do at least 150 minutes a week. If you haven’t exercised for a while, start slowly and build up gradually.

The Northern Echo: Regular exercise is proven to lift your mood when you’re feeling lowRegular exercise is proven to lift your mood when you’re feeling low

As part of Durham County Council’s new Move campaign, which aims to encourage residents to move more to improve their mental and physical health, County Durham residents can get their 150 minutes of activity at their local leisure centre for free. Six-month gym and swim memberships are available for free to residents aged 11 and above, while anyone over 16 is eligible for free exercise classes too.

To apply, simply complete a quick and easy appointment form on the Durham County Council website and arrange a chat with a member of the wellness team at your local centre.

You can access the form here or call the Move team on 03000 262 539.

Don’t worry if you’re new to exercise and don't know where to start or you are struggling to get back into exercise and want to know what will work best for you. You will receive personalised and confidential advice and signposting to help you get moving. A specialist member of staff will provide information on appropriate leisure centre and community activities, and will plan follow-up appointments so you can receive ongoing support to help keep you on track.

After being forced to leave full-time employment due to poor mental health, 57-year-old Gary became a volunteer walk leader for Durham County Council’s Walk Durham programme.

“Becoming a volunteer has motivated me to discover more about my local area. It also helped me meet other people,” he said.

The role has had a positive impact on Gary’s physical and mental wellbeing, and he says one of the best things about being a leader is “the satisfaction of giving others a reason to turn up once a week”.

As well as leading short wellbeing walks on Monday mornings from Spennymoor Youth and Community Centre, Gary is also doing other outdoor activity training and hopes to become a volunteer cycle leader in the near future.

Cllr James Rowlandson, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for resources, investment and assets, said: “Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have found themselves moving less, and now more than ever we are understanding how important it is to live an active lifestyle and exercise regularly. Not only does it improve mobility and helps people stay fit and healthy, but it also significantly improves mental health and wellbeing.

“By making our facilities free and accessible, more residents can discover fun ways of exercising that meet their abilities and needs. This means more of our residents can get find activities they enjoy, boosting their wellbeing and helping them live a well and active life.”

The New Year is a great time to make a fresh start. Why not make your mental health your priority?