Exercise – Why do we really do it?

I passed a friend on the way back from the gym this morning at 7am.  She sent me a message saying, “I can’t believe you get up so early to go to Crossfit. “

I realise that to many it may seem like madness, some crazy fitness addiction, a punishing regime.  For many people, there is no doubt that it can become this and people can also use intensive exercise as a way to manage their anxiety and emotions. It can replace other addictions they may have used in the past such as drugs and alcohol, be part of an eating disorder and can work as a distraction or a form of control.  

I began running about 10 years ago and quickly noticed how dependent I became on it.  The run round the park became 5k, then 10k, a half marathon and then the Brighton Marathon.  Two weeks before I was due to run in the Brighton Marathon, I tore my calf muscle and was unable to take part.  I was gutted, but the hardest part of it all was being told that I couldn’t run for several months in order to give my calf the time it needed to heal. This took six months. I realised then how dependent I had become on running for my mental health.  How it had become an addiction that had helped me manage the difficulties in my marriage, my loss of self and my low self- esteem which had plummeted as a result of being a stay at home mum.  It meant that I didn’t have to focus on the lifestyle changes that I really needed to make, as each time I shut the front door I could leave all those worries behind me and get my fix of endorphins.  It was my substitute anti-depressant.  As a result of my injury, I had to take stock and work through all the emotional difficulties I was having at the time and make fundamental changes to the way I was living my life. I couldn’t run away from them any longer. Literally and metaphorically.

A few years later, a friend encouraged me to put my name into the ballot for the London Marathon.  Many people try year after year, so it was a complete surprise to get a place. This time I did it differently. I trained slowly and gently, listening to my body and what it needed.  When I had a twinge I rested, I had sports massages and a few weeks before the event, I took myself off to a yoga retreat. Running the London Marathon was one of the best days of my life. The atmosphere was electric, the sun was shinning and I crossed that finish line in disbelief.  I think I was in shock for a while.  Everything worked.  Nothing was injured.  I know that the reason I was able to do so was because of the way I had looked after my body and mind in a completely different way than I had those years earlier.  This time I wasn’t running away from anything or pounding the pavements in desperation to get that fix I needed to make my life more manageable.

Exercise for me now is incredibly important in maintaining my physical and mental health but is no longer the coping mechanism it once was. I go to Crossfit three times a week, regularly sea swim and try and do some yoga.  In this morning’s session, I lifted some weights whilst we swapped stories about what posters we had on our walls as teenagers (Pamela Anderson and bikes seemed to be a popular theme for the men). We discussed music and shared our nostalgia for gigs and the loss we feel with their absence at the moment. We discussed Freddie Flintoff and his documentary on Bulimia that was shown this week. The causes of Bulimia and how it is such a hidden illness for men, despite 1 in 4 sufferers being male.  We stretched. And we ate cake on the way out that someone had baked.

The physical fitness is important but equally as important for me is the connections, the laughs, the conversations, and spending time with a group of people in my community made up of different genders and ages that I may not mix with in other parts of my life.  As we all discovered in Lockdown, Social isolation has a huge negative impact on our mental health. Having an excuse to go and hang out with others regularly, check in how we are and discuss weekly topics under the guise that we are all only there to get fit, is an essential part of my self-care and wellbeing.

A Community Witnessing of Grief.

“There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit.” Sobonfu Some

Leaving the revelry of Pride behind this Saturday, I took myself off to the beautiful space at the Ecotherapy Centre at Stamner Park to take part with others in a Community Grief Tending ritual. I had little knowledge of what to expect, but soon learned that we were to spend the day – a group of 10 of us, connecting, sharing our stories if we wished and experiencing and expressing our grief amongst each other. So often many of us experience the heart wrenching deep pain of grief alone. For a few days after someone has died, friends pay us visits or check if we are ok, but as the days turn to weeks and the weeks into months, the grief seeps deeper inside us and we can often worry that our feelings of despair, loneliness or anger may not be welcomed by friends. We numb ourselves with alcohol, food – or whatever is at our disposal in an attempt to cover up these feelings and distract us from them. But they don’t go away. The plaster gets wet, worn round the edges and falls off, revealing the deep wound that is still in so very much in need of healing.

In other cultures, such as the Dagara tribe of West Africa, grief is communal and they partake in weekly grief rituals where the community come together to support and witness each other in their grief. This enables those grieving to be able to process and release their grief. Very opposite to our own culture where so much grieving is done behind closed doors, with people feeling ashamed of their emotions, feeling there is something wrong with them for not being “over it” and friends too afraid to ask how they are in case they “upset them.”

The day flowed as we moved across the land creating an altar of gratitude and an altar for those ancestors whom we wished to honour, remember and share with each other. A fire was lit as we gathered around it to feast on the wonderful nourishing food we had all brought to share with one another. The main part of the day was the ritual itself in which those who wished to, were invited to handle objects which represented fear, sorrow, anger and numbness. As each member held the various objects, they shared and released some of their pain and feelings, which were witnessed by each other in an environment that felt safe and holding. There was no judgement, other than for ourselves, and people were able to unlock some of their deeply held grief and express it in front of each other. For some, this took the form of words, for others with tears or anger. I was struck by the courage of every participant to take that risk to show their pain and express that part of themselves which at times can feel so unwelcome in our society. For some the grief was so far hidden they shared their frustration at not being able to access it, knowing it was there bubbling underneath the surface. There was something incredibly powerful about having our grief witnessed and feeling that connection with others. I left that day feeling full of gratitude for the connections I had made and the opportunity to express my own grief and feel seen and heard.

Our society has become so much about the individual, but we need each other. We need communities. We need to come together. We need to be witnessed and held and know that we are okay, however we are feeling that day. We need to know that Grief is a natural process and a journey that will continue to affect us all throughout our lives in one way or another. Yes, it is hard and yes, it is painful and heart wrenching at times and can take us to the pits of despair and isolation. However, if we can reach out, support each other, and accept that this is a consequence of loving and living in this world, then we can make the process of grieving that little bit more bearable for us all.