At the very end of 2015 I was thinking about the year ahead and what I wanted to achieve. I do this every year as I find it helpful to think about what I might need to change and what’s working well. Struggling against low mood and depression has been an ongoing battle for me, and finding ways to prevent it is usually part of any plans I make. And so at the end of 2015 I found it was time for me to face my nemesis: exercise.
Exercise has never been something I’ve enjoyed, it’s always been a chore and one that at school, I avoided at all costs. Being gifted academically, I wasn’t really used to being the one who couldn’t do something, so PE lessons were a constant humiliation for me because I seemed to be unable to perform well at any physical activity, and I hated team sports. It didn’t help that as I grew up I saw the medals my mum had for running and ballet, saw her performing handstands and splits that I could never do, and also saw her poorly hidden frustration at my inability to replicate her physical skills.
However, being in your 40s makes you think about what your life will look like as you get older. At the end of 2015 I had suffered from back pain for a long time. It was so bad there were days when I couldn’t stand up straight enough to walk and I wanted to do something to try and put that right. In my reflective mood, I also realised that when I get old I can either be a fit old person or an unfit one. That’s largely down to what I do now, the choices I make in both diet and exercise at this point.
Because I was following the Action for Happiness keys at the time, I knew in theory that exercise can lift your mood. However, acknowledging the physical and mental need for exercise doesn’t make it easier to do when you don’t see yourself as someone who can do it.
“Our body and our mind are connected. Being active makes us happier as well as being good for our physical health. It instantly improves our mood and can even lift us out of a depression. We don’t all need to run marathons – there are simple things we can all do to be more active each day. And we can also boost our well-being by unplugging from technology, getting outside and – importantly – making sure we get enough sleep!”
In the past I had tried swimming but couldn’t stick to it. I realised that I had a left over idea from my childhood that swimming was enjoyable. It took a while for me to accept that for who I am now, swimming is a giant pain in the arse and I really don’t like it. I hate that it ruins my curly hair, I hate getting into a pool that smells of chlorine, I hate being in a giant soup of other people who may or may not have showered, I hate having to wear a swimming costume. The whole thing just turns me off.
I’d tried a few exercise classes and they didn’t work for me either. I’m not really a group exercise person – I’m a proud introvert. I don’t find thumping music and a loud over-enthusiastic instructor enjoyable. Plus I am not physically coordinated enough to copy moves and work out which way I’m going in the mirror. And seeing my uncoordinated self going the wrong way in the giant mirror? That’s awful.
I realised that my success would all hinge on finding something that I liked doing. Cycling was the only thing I could think of, as I’d spent large amounts of my childhood on my bike and it was one thing I could remember being able to do well and enjoying. There was no fear for me when I was on my bike as a child. I would ride down sets of stairs, I’d race anyone and everyone and stand a good chance at beating them. With bikes, I’d even managed to get past my mum’s resistance to me having anything she considered too boyish; I was the very proud owner of a Black and Gold Super Grifter bike which I loved. (Much better than a Girl’s World doll). So setting myself some kind of goal to do with cycling seemed like a good plan. Not being put off by other ‘serious’ cyclists wearing tight lycra was an issue, but one I overcame quite quickly by making a decision to ignore what everyone else was doing; I needed to focus on what worked for me.
I’d heard of the London to Brighton cycle ride so I looked it up. It’s organised by The British Heart Foundation, and there are actually two different rides. One is mainly on the road, and the other is off-road for 75 miles. I don’t like cycling on the road; the ‘no-fear on a bike’ attitude I had as a child had disappeared after a few experiences cycling my two children to school in a Burley trailer. So I decided to sign up for the off-road version of the ride. Because my superpower is overthinking everything and convincing myself that challenging things will be too difficult for me and so giving up before I’ve even started, I signed up and paid immediately before I could change my mind. Then I told people so that I was committed.
The North Dorset Trailway is 2 minutes from my house and in January 2016 I started cycling along it for 20 minutes or so every few days, then built up the distance gradually. I set myself distance markers I wanted to get to by certain dates; that really helped. I’d also set out to use different senses on my journey, so sometimes I would concentrate on what I could hear (birds, dogs, cattle, the wind in the trees, distant traffic) and other times what I could feel in different parts of my body (mainly aching legs) and so on. I recorded some of these experiences and they often found their way into my gratitude journal.
I also set myself very gradual targets for weight loss because I was overweight and I felt self-conscious about it; I knew that loosing weight would make me feel happier. The thing with exercise, loosing weight (if you need to) and getting fit is that before you begin you have the final goal in mind, the place you need to get to. There is a way of thinking that says then when I’ve reached this goal, I will feel better; the benefits all feel so far away and that can make it more difficult to start.
However, the reality is that you start to feel better very quickly. When you start to feel a bit fitter it gives you a lift. When you have lost 2lb you can feel really different. When you have cycled further today than you did the day before, you feel better. When you achieve something in formerly ‘dead time’ you get a lift. Add to that the fresh air, the beauty of nature and for me the mindfulness of being on a bike, and things get better quite quickly.
When I woke up early (as I often do in the summer), I could get up and go for a ride. I took my camera with me and could stop and take photographs as an excuse to rest. That way I had achieved something before anyone else in the house was even awake. It felt really good. Soon I could cycle the whole length of the trailway and back several times a week, which is about 18 miles off road with plenty of steep hills and challenging sections.
For me, using exercise as a way to boost my mood worked really well until April 2016. I even treated myself to a new bike. But then it struck: Hayfever.
At that point I couldn’t continue to cycle outside. I had a choice to make: give-up, or find something else. I felt I’d made so much progress both physically and mentally that there was no way I was going to stop. And so I did something I never, ever thought I’d do. I started going to the gym. I’ll save that for another post, suffice to say that it’s something I’m now used to and am really enjoying at the moment. I’ve even managed to get to a few pilates classes.
And did I do London to Brighton? No. I moved to New York for a couple of months and so I didn’t get to do it. But training for it gave me the direction and push I needed to start a regular exercise habit that has definitely helped to lift my mood.