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.

September – A Month of Transition.

I noticed how the long-awaited relief of children returning to school was entwined with a feeling of loss and sadness this week. My mood dipped and I started to recognise this feeling as a familiar tone that sets in year after year in September. The sea suddenly becomes less inviting, I notice the evenings start to draw in and that abundant energy I had in June and July is no longer present. As the leaves start to fall from the trees and the seasons change, so do I.  The familiar feeling is one of grief.

As a child I was sent to Boarding School, so each September my trunk would be packed and off I would go, leaving behind my mum, my cat, my house, my bedroom and have to quickly make the transition to being one of 30 girls sleeping in an open dormitory. There was no space for grief and transition then as I had to adapt quickly with a brisk goodbye at the door to my mum and a goodbye to the summer holidays and the time I had spent outside of this institution.  As an adult I have always viewed September as a new beginning and am able to see how I have developed a pattern of often shedding jobs and relationships in the summer months, preparing for this new term to start. 

However, these days those feelings of grief show up and I am no longer able to push forward as I have in the past.  This has shown up in a cough in recent Autumns that I have struggled to shift.  As a child in that first year at Boarding School I developed Asthma out of the blue. Many of us associate sadness and grief with the heart, but In Chinese Medicine your lungs are seen as a repository for these emotions. We have all encountered so much grief in the past six months.  We may have individually experienced the physical loss of a loved one, we may have lost the job we cherished, the financial security we had, our space away from our children, our routine, our holidays, physical touch and our freedom of movement.  We have all collectively experienced the loss of the lifestyle that we once knew. The ground that once felt solid beneath our feet is now like sand as we move into Autumn uncertain whether another Lockdown is on the horizon and we are still unable to plan for the future.

 So, as the leaves have started to fall this week, and my energy levels started to droop, I have stopped in my rush to push forward and decided to be kind to myself.  To give my body and my mind what it is asking for.  Nourishing food, warm baths, and plenty of rest.  I have started giving myself a massage each evening before bed with Bergamot aromatherapy oil, known for its mood balancing and uplifting properties. So often our minds can race ahead of our bodies with all these intentions and plans, and our bodies then crash with burn out / depression or a physical ailment that causes us to stop.  Hopefully this year, I have spotted the signs early on and have started to slow down into Autumn and give my body and mind what it really needs and deserves. We are unable to fully go forwards and transition unless we make space to let go of our grief. We have all had to adapt so much these past six months and we are incredibly resilient to have done so, so make sure going into Autumn you give yourself the nurture that you need and deserve.