Clay shooting is the most fun you can have with a pair of ear defenders on. But did you know it’s great for your mental and physical wellbeing too? By James Simon
Shooting builds strength
During a competition day you’ll be shouldering your gun, which probably weighs 7-8lbs (3.2-3.6kg), between 100 and 200 times. That’s a lot of repetitions! Regular practice lifting that lump of wood and steel is going to make you strong. And being strong is great for our health because muscles do more than help us show off in the gym or open jars of marmalade.
Muscle cells contain a high concentration of tiny organs called mitochondria that help turn the energy we absorb from food into energy that we can use. Essentially, they are miniature powerhouses that give us get-up-and-go. More muscle equals more oomph.
It gets better than that. Muscle is a major site of glucose uptake. The more muscle we have, the more insulin receptors we have which means we’re less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Finally, if your last birthday cake was ablaze with more than 50 candles then it’s likely you’re in the early stages of sarcopenia, which is age-related loss of muscle mass. Strength training is our best defence against sarcopenia, so keep lifting that gun!
Shooting develops balance
Shooting may not be as dynamic as pole vaulting, but it is a sport that both requires and promotes flexibility and balance. The ideal stance across all disciplines is one that provides stability without inhibiting movement, so most shooters will have their front toe pointing into the ‘kill zone’ and will lean into the shot.
To remain well-balanced, this stance requires both strength and flexibility, mostly from the core but also from the back, shoulders, glutes, quads and hamstrings. Done well, it’s an all body workout, albeit a subtle one.
Shooting drives motor skills
It’s obvious that shooting is great for developing good hand-eye coordination – without it, you’ll enjoy fewer hits than Chumbawamba. We rely on good motor skills not just for shooting but for completing everyday essential tasks such as doing up shoelaces or illicit snacking.
Unfortunately, as we age, neuromuscular communication in our bodies deteriorates and our dexterity and responsiveness suffers. Clay shooting helps us maintain hand-eye coordination as we age.
Shooting is a healthy outdoor activity
According to the app developer RescueTime, in 2019 we spent, on average, about three hours and 15 minutes on our phones – that’s half a working day. Astonishingly, Ofcom figures suggest that we also spend something like four hours a day watching TV and online video content. And after 2020, many of us have likely spent even more time cooped up inside.
Shooting gives us the opportunity to get outside, gulp the fresh air and soak up the sunshine. According to government research (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), 2016) at least one in five of us suffer from low vitamin D levels, which can lead to poor bone, teeth and muscle health. Our main source of vitamin D is from the action of sunlight on our skin, so it’s important for us to exercise outdoors when we can.
We’re fortunate to enjoy a sport that’s practised in some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK and there are numerous studies that demonstrate that ‘being in nature’ is good for us.
Research by the Center for Environment, Chiba University, Japan shows that spending time in woodland – Shinrin-yoku as the Japanese call it – can lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol by 15 percent, slow pulse rates and reduce blood pressure.
They also discovered that being in woodland can relieve psychological tension, depression, fatigue and confusion. Better still, these researchers suspected that any natural settings may have similar beneficial effects, not just woodlands.
Closer to home, researchers at Essex University have discovered that natural environments promote lower levels of perceived exertion. In simple terms, exercising outdoors feels easier, so we’re more likely to do more of it more intensely.
So, if you want to reduce stress, combat high blood pressure and improve your mental health, head out to that rural shooting ground and have fun!
It brings purpose to our lives
The French call it our raison d’être, yogis call it dharma, and Aristotle believed that it led to true happiness. Giving our lives meaning and purpose is what makes it worth getting out of bed every morning. A life without meaning, without purpose is inherently stressful and downright unhealthy to live. Fortunately, clay shooting can help.
Doing something regularly that we love for the intrinsic joy of just participating in that pastime is immeasurably good for us.
Do you find that time slows down when you shoot? You’re so absorbed, so focused, that you are essentially beyond distraction? Psychologists call this ‘flow state’, and it encourages the growth of our rational brain.
This is because when we are fully absorbed in something, it’s impossible for our emotional brain to get the upper hand and trigger a downward spiral of negative thoughts.
Clay shooting gives us the chance to take a break from the everyday and immerse ourselves in something that has purpose.
It’s so social
Shoot. Chat. Shoot some more. Chat some more. Repeat. Shooting has to be one of the most sociable sports out there.
Humans are social animals, and we tend to feel more complete when we’re connected to our friends and family. Isolation reduces our willpower and perseverance, which is why lonely, middle-aged adults will statistically drink more, have unhealthier diets, and also do a lot less less exercise than those who are socially contented.
Lonely people are also likely to report being more exposed to stress and, paradoxically, they will tend to withdraw from the company of others. Sleep is badly affected and our immune and cardiovascular systems are impacted too. Shooting can provide us with the social fix we need to keep healthy.
It triggers a healthier lifestyle
Let’s be honest. Shooting cannot rival running for cardio, weight training for strength or yoga for flexibility. But shooting at your best does require a certain level of strength, stamina, suppleness and sharp focus – qualities that will be in short supply if you don’t make an effort to look after yourself properly.
If you’re serious about your shooting, then you’re more likely to adopt a healthier lifestyle. And, whether you are serious about your shooting or not, it’s guaranteed to bring you a lot of fun and introduce you to a host of new friends. That’s got to be good for you.
Aaron Heading Olympic Trap champion shot
Two weeks after winning silver at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games Aaron Heading suffered a motorcycle crash. So bad were the breaks to his left leg that his surgeon considered amputating it.
“I was hospitalised for four weeks and missed the World Championships in Granada, the qualifying event for the Rio Olympics. Worse still, my medical team told me I would be in a wheelchair for months and unable to shoot for a year or more. So I focused on getting to the first World Cup of 2015 in Mexico just six months later.
“Shooting drove me not to wallow in self-pity but to get out there again as soon as possible. I made it to Mexico, wearing a knee-brace, and scored 121, dropping just four targets. I missed the final by just one target but nevertheless I was elated to have come so far, so soon.”
The rest of 2015 was a struggle for Aaron. Having rushed recovery, he found it hard to maintain performance and considered retiring from shooting.
“I joined the Coastguard service and started shooting just for enjoyment again. After about six months I entered a few competitions and started to climb higher up the rankings. And, in early 2016, I took bronze at the World Cup in Mexico!”
Aaron’s shooting career has gone from strength to strength, picking up a gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and gaining selection for the Tokyo Olympics.
“In hindsight I rushed my recovery but shooting gave me hope. It fuelled my ambition to get out of that wheelchair and live life to the full again. It also helped both my physical and mental recovery.
“Up early, in the countryside, totally absorbed by the next target is incredibly mindful. Of course, I’m so lucky to have a loving, supportive family around me, and I can’t wait to start shooting with my son in a few years’ time.”
Mick Kirby Disabled shooter and CPSA referee
In 2007, without warning, Mick Kirby suffered a devastating stroke. Initially, he lost the use of his left leg and arm, and his speech was badly impaired. It took him three years to walk again and five before he could return to work. Mick never recovered the use of his left arm, so, after five years he decided to have it amputated below the elbow.
“I managed to give myself a kick up the backside without falling over and decided to start living life again. The charity Sports Ability introduced me to a variety of sports. With its help I tried canoeing, quad biking, microlight flying and then shooting at Northall in Sussex. I loved it – the team at Northall were so helpful.”
Mick found that shooting helped with both physical and mental health. “Shooting incentivises me to go to the gym, which otherwise can be dull. It’s a virtuous circle; shooting gives me a reason to work out and the gym helps improve my strength, balance and stamina for shooting.
“It’s boosted my confidence too.At first, I just enjoyed going down to the club, chatting with new friends and trying to hit some clays. Then I started to shoot competitively against able bodied shooters.
“I went on to qualify as a CPSA referee in Sporting, Skeet and DTL, so it’s given me a new profession too. I spend most weekends travelling, working as a referee, and I love it.”
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- The Seated Gun: Interview