A Happier, Healthier You! Maybe.
January 15, 2019

As I left the house for the third time in one day, on a cold and miserable evening, I turned to my daughter Mili and said “Why can’t you go back to being lazy again? Then I could be a lazy mum. I liked it better then.”

I won’t lie. Physically I am a pretty lazy human being. I’m 36 now (Or at least I think I am, I can’t be bothered to keep score anymore) and I spend most of my days sitting at my desk writing. My mind is overactive, to the point I am exhausted most of the time. I like to solve problems. Sometimes there aren’t any problems to solve, so I create my own and then solve them.

My fingers, my mouth, and my brain are as fit as an elite athlete. It’s just a shame about the rest of me.

My mental health isn’t much better than my physical health. That’s ok though, anyone who works in the creative industry, particularly writers, designers, performers, probably don’t have excellent mental health. We are relentless over thinkers, we are emotional – we have to be to create our art. Most of us lie awake at night needlessly going over things, questioning the value, worth and authenticity of our work.

Also, I have teenage children. Any parent who has teenage children and claims not to have some kind of mental health issues is either lying about having children or lying about their mental health issues.

I am stressed. I am tired. I am miserable a lot of the time. I don’t want to be. So, what does a writer who loves research and spends almost all day looking at a computer do when they want to change things? They google.

Anyone who has ever experienced any kind of stress or struggle in their life, and turned to the world wide web for advice, will eventually come across an article that tells you the best cure for unhappiness, tiredness, miserableness, general pissed offness, is exercise. Improve your physical health, and you will find this happier, healthier version of you!

I scoff. If I am tired and depressed, the last thing I need is to be more active and around people who look good and are happy and full of joy.

However, article after article tells me that exercise really is the answer to everything. So. I’ve given it a go, so you don’t have to.

I wanted to choose a range of activities. Stuff that would challenge me and stuff that I knew I’d probably be pretty good at.

I created a list of all the things I would quite like to have a go at. It became apparent pretty quickly that I favour physical activity that involves sitting down.

  • Cycling

  • Kayaking

  • Horse riding

 

These seemed like the sensible place to start, but I needed more. Preferably some things that didn’t involve sitting. So I opted for

  • Running – people tell me they enjoy that and it is free. Bonus.

  • Weight Training – I really enjoyed watching ‘World’s Strongest Man’ So maybe I’ll enjoy that?

  • Exercise Classes – I could probably do lots of chatting in an exercise class. My comfort Zone.

Wanting to break myself in with something gentle, I told my boyfriend I wanted to kayak down the River Wye. We had a few months left of summer, and I had a window in the racing calendar, so it was possible. I was a little nervous because I have the weakest arms in the world. I also don’t like getting blisters. Blisters are a pain when you are a writer. My delicate hands take a lot of pampering to keep them dancing, happily across my keyboard. I put a lot of time into my French manicure too. What is the point in having beautiful nails on butchered hands? I know, right?

Anyway, we already had a two-man kayak, but Andrew decided we ought to get me a single. That way we could pack all the essential things that we need to keep Nancy happy on a two-day trip. Things like a really good Bordeaux, a hairbrush and a family pack of Andrex Washlettes. We also decided to take ration packs with us instead of food. I had tried one on a camping trip once. It was ok. Most importantly, it left more space for the wine.

Off we went. About 20 minutes into the trip I realised I had this weird feeling. I started to get really anxious about it. I hadn’t felt it before, and now it was vexing me. After another 10 minutes, I realised that the feeling I was experiencing was calmness. I was totally relaxed. I was also smiling.

I got a bit overexcited about this because it is very rare that I’m not worrying about something. So I started chatting away to Andy. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop talking about canapés. Specifically those little beef, horseradish and Yorkshire pudding ones. I started to pine after a gin. You know what? This is a great exercise!

We paddled all day, only stopping once for a spot of fishing. And then, we got to a challenging part. The rapids at Symonds Yat. Technical, physically demanding, dangerous. I flung myself down them with gay abandon and not the first clue what I was doing, I didn’t die. Andy and I had a fist bump at the end, and I spent the next hour experiencing one of those fitness induced euphorias.

Then I slept on a rock without a tent. I was too tired to drink my wine. A bizarre side effect of exercise.

Kayaking was a fun and simple introduction into exercise. The only issue with it was that I couldn’t do it on my own, or regularly enough for it to have any serious benefit on my physical or mental health. However, it did make me happy. So there is a win.

Next up was cycling. A cardiovascular exercise which I could do sitting down and would help tone my wobbly thighs.

I bought a basic mountain bike, no suspension. I went for my first ride in the Forest of Dean, on their yellow family trail. This route is designed for families with small children, so it was about the right level for my cycling ability.

The first bit was depressing. A hill. A long one. I had to stop 8 times before we got to the top. Andy was cycling so slowly to keep me motivated that he almost fell off three times.

The lactic build up in my legs was so bad that I was convinced my thighs were going to snap off. We had 14KM left to ride.

After the first uphill there was a long downhill through the woods and then a lovely flat section. Standing up, I started to look around me and again, realised I was smiling. The only thoughts in my head were memories of all the naughty things I used to get up to as a kid when I rode my bike. I remembered that first taste of freedom I felt when my mum let me go out on my own with my mates on our bicycles. The surroundings were beautiful.

As my fitness levels were so low, I found the uphills pretty shit. Although they were tough, there was something about cycling that made me enjoy the tough bits. By the time we reached the end of our ride, I had the bug. I didn’t just want to ride on the roads. I wanted to single track. This was a sport for me.

The next day was a bit awkward. I walked like John Wayne for about three days. It didn’t put me off though.

Over the course of the next few months, I cycled 3 times a week. It only took 4 rides until I could make the first uphill (The one which saw me stop 8 times on my first outing) in one go. I got bored with the yellow ride and so we went off to the skills loops and then the blue trail in the Forest of Dean. It was tough, technical and exhausting. But I loved every minute of it. I forgot all my stress, and I spent the whole time grinning.

I’m now three or four months into cycling regularly. I’m on a full suss bike and riding red routes. I’m still mostly unfit, but I am improving. My only struggle is exposed drops. I am petrified of heights. I just returned from a day at Afan on Y Wall. I cried the whole way down. But I did it. Who would ever have thought you could push your limits to the point that you are crying, and still love every minute of it?

I spend an unhealthy amount of time talking and reading and thinking about my next ride.

Oh my god. I like a sport.

The natural progression from this was running. Andy runs daily. He doesn’t just run. He’s Airborne, so he does a lot of Tabbing. A TAB means Tactical Advance to Battle, and it is something that the Airborne / Paratroop regiment excel at.

Having experienced the joy that both Kayaking and Cycling gave me, I asked Andy to take me out for a run/walk in the forest.

You don’t need details. You just need to know this.

Running is awful. There is no joy in it. If you know someone who runs, they aren’t doing it to make themselves happy. They are self-harming. And you should stop them straight away.

From my experience, albeit limited, running is an activity that should only be used in an emergency situation. Such as fleeing a crime scene. Or if the off licence is about to close. Other than that, I see no benefit from running that you cannot obtain from something else.

I have really unattractive trotters. I spent two months nurturing them so I could give them a French manicure and at least not look like Shrek when I take off my shoes. After ONE run, I have two disgusting black toenails, and I am almost convinced one is going to drop off. It’s hideous. Running did that to me.

After the worst activity I have ever taken part in, I came home to have a bath. The resentment I felt that I had to run the bath ruined the whole experience for me. So running ruined that too.

Weight Lifting was an entirely different thing. I went to the gym with Andy, which could have been a mistake. Andy goes to the gym every day. If he were to appear on Blind Date then ‘Our Graham” would say “Andy describes himself as a meathead” a little off-putting, but true.

Andy put me through my paces, and we used every single piece of equipment available. I’ll admit, I had a little trouble with squats. Mostly that I could get down low enough but couldn’t stand up again. This could be age, my mum always says she has trouble getting up. Or, it could be down to my lack of muscle. If it is the latter, I’m in the right place to fix that issue!

After a couple of hours, we were done. I was pretty happy too. I had worked hard and really enjoyed it. I’ll be back in the gym again for sure. I went home and ordered myself a gym outfit. Something that would look good and suitably embarrass Andy overtime we went.

The next day was a different story.

I knew that DOMS was a thing. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is something that is often unavoidable. Especially if you are trying a new activity or just starting out. It’s quite normal and is a good sign you have achieved something. It’s just a little unfortunate that my DOMS lasted a week. Genuinely I was walking around like Spotty off the Wooden Tops. Amusing for Andrew, less so for me. I avoided any situation where I had to get out of my car in public. Every time I got off the sofa I let out a pained groan, unintentionally. It just fell out of my mouth without any effort or thought at all.

Eventually, the DOMS left me. Which was a relief as nothing is worse than going to bed at night with the fear of having to get up in the morning.

Despite the pain, I loved the gym. The feeling it gave me afterwards was ace. I loved that I could feel and see an improvement in my balance, strength and body toning almost instantly.

So, the last thing for me to try, now I had collected a couple of activities I really enjoyed, was gym classes.

I’d done these before when I was younger. I had a crack at Body Combat when I lived down south and got so confused by the exhaustion and speed of the class that I ended up punching myself in the eye. Still, after a few months of cycling, I was pretty sure I was fitter than ever, and the classes would be easier, so it was time to put that theory to the test.

Andy’s mum is in her late 60’s. She is amazing. She lost over 6 stone last year and has been going to the gym. Initially to swim every day, but now she does a lot of fitness classes. She looks awesome. A lot of hard work has gone into her new figure, and she should be proud. She’s tried single class they have going from Yoga to Body Pump, and genuinely, she looks happier than I’ve ever seen her. So, she invited me down to take part in one of the classes she does. Body Combat. When someone as inspirational as this invites you to join them, you should jump at the chance. She really is an advert for healthy living and that it is never too late to get healthy and active. Providing you put in the time, dedication and hard work, you can achieve anything.

On arrival, I was struck by one thing. The gym is really loud. No one needs to have music on that loud. I started to wonder if they deliberately turn it up so that passers-by can’t hear the pained groans. It’s more enticing to hear bass pumping out of a building than it is to hear Nancy crying out in pain 5 minutes into a spin class.

I also observed that there were quite a few older ladies coming into the gym. This was good. I’m in my thirties, so if ladies in their seventies can get through Body Combat, I am pretty confident that I can.

Yeah, well I was wrong.

Oh also, Because I had arrived early and the gym is right by a Mcdonalds, I decided to have breakfast. I really love Mcdonald’s hash browns. So I had a bacon roll meal, a latte, and TWO hash browns. More on that later.

Sandwiched between two women in their sixties, I started the class thinking “this isn’t too bad” I punched my way through the first five minutes and fooled myself into believing I would be fine.

The forty minutes after that were horrifying. Firstly, the McDonalds breakfast was a mistake. As things started to get harder, I began to sweat and feel a little dizzy. My breakfast then gave me indigestion. I won’t lie, for about 15 minutes I thought it could easily be the warning signs of a heart attack. That put me off a little, and I lost my way on the steps.

It was furious. I mean seriously. I kept looking at my mother in law in the vain hope that she might be struggling too.

She wasn’t. She was doing bounce squats and roundhouses, jumping lunges and burpees, like they were nothing. After 20 minutes I was sweating like a pig at a country fair. My mum in law? Hadn’t even broken a sweat.

The most shameful part was that she had come straight from a legs, bums and tums class. Whereas I had come into the class fresh.

Every one of those ladies in that class handed me my arse on a platter.

Talking of arses. I further embarrassed my mum in law when I went into the steam room. After a long relaxing jacuzzi, clearly, my swimming costume was full of air. As I sat down next to a couple of guys, my swimming costume made a long, thunderous, fart noise. I am still not sure that anyone believed me when I said “That was not a fart” especially as one of the other occupants of the steam room quietly said “Whoever smelt it, dealt it”

I am going back next Friday for a double session and to see if I can keep up with the incredibly fit, older women.

So. What have I learnt since embarking on this fitness journey?

Firstly, there is a link between physical and mental health. I have laughed more, smiled more and felt incredibly proud since I started riding the bike.

I can honestly say I feel the difference in my mental health when I am not riding. I go back to feeling lazy and crap and miserable.

Just a small amount of exercise has increased my work productivity. I find it easier to focus and to organise myself. I’m not kidding. This could be down to the exercise, or it could be due to the quality of sleep I have after. I don’t know, I’m not a medical professional, so I have literally no idea what the reason is. I just know there is a difference.

I’ve felt far less contentious, and I’ve dealt with relationships better. E.g., I yell at my daughter less.

I also feel more confident in myself. Not only in the way my body looks – which also earns me smugness points – but also I seem to be making better, more certain decisions. This could be due to the fact I have to really push myself, especially on MTB trails, and I am beginning to realise that I can do anything I put my mind to, even things that look impossible.

Whatever the reason, exercise has definitely made me feel like a better human being.

Except for running. Running absolutely didn’t make me feel like a better human being. It made me hate myself, the people around me, I think it even made me hate my dog, and he is the most fantastic creature on earth.

My top tips if you are struggling a little? Get out there and do something. Try lots of different things. Do them with people who make you laugh. Don’t sit still. Don’t worry if you don’t enjoy something, try something else. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and most of all, enjoy yourself.

It really is possible to find a happier and healthier version of yourself. No matter how old you are.

And, If you are a runner? It will be ok. You just need to stop hurting yourself. Be kinder to yourself. You don’t deserve the misery you are inflicting on yourself. I promise.

 

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