As children, we’re very connected to our physical bodies – all being well, we move freely, our bodily functions happen naturally. Once our minds start kicking in there’s a sense of disconnection: our thoughts start to take control, we start to care about what others think. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are shaped by everything around us – our home environment, the food we eat, the emotions we experience and the wider influence of the culture and the society we grow up in. When we’re young, most of us are encouraged to be active, but often once we leave school, this falls by the wayside.
I’m a typical example of this. I enjoyed country dancing, going swimming, playing netball, tennis and rounders at school, but this faded away in my teens as I got interested in parties, going to the cinema, boys. By the time I went to college and got my dream job on a magazine, I found myself sitting at my desk writing for long periods. There was a certain amount of running around for interviews, going on photo shoots and appointments, but there didn’t seem to be any time for exercise beyond that. In any case life was so full and fun, I didn’t think about doing any formal classes or activities. In fact, I’d begun to consider myself as no good at sports, and now I can see that I lost confidence in my body and that this had quite an effect not only on how I saw myself, but also how I treated myself.
I’d always been into health and beauty, and because I was constantly writing about the latest news and trends, I was always trying out the latest fads, which of course I never really stuck to. And I got away with not exercising, and eating practically what I wanted until I was in my mid 30s when I began to notice that I no longer bounced back from late nights, stressful work deadlines or late nights. That was when I couldn’t ignore being inactive, so I started walking fast everywhere, always taking the stairs (no lifts or escalators unless it was a sky scraper); I dabbled in running and took up yoga. It took me by surprise how much better I felt by getting moving – and the impact that it had on my health. I had more energy and it seemed that little niggles began to disappear as my appetite and digestion regulated itself.
It was almost too good to be true, because I wasn’t doing any fancy or punishing kind of routine, just little and often. A consistent habit. Now we have so many studies which show that sitting for long periods is the modern day health saboteur – that it is causing some of the major chronic diseases we’re prone to. According to the renowned Mayo Clinic in the US, this includes obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. By moving regularly, we can help ourselves avoid these issues.
But what amazed me the most was how becoming active took me out of my head and back into my body, helping me to rediscover my physicality. And that this had a huge impact on how happy I felt in my own skin. Slowly, slowly I began to accept myself as I was. I didn’t need to conform to any particular size or shape, be an elite marathon runner when a quick run around the park would suffice or bend myself into pretzel yoga postures with dancer like flexibility. And this produced a virtuous circle – eating well, and generally looking after myself became easier to make a priority.
This was very much to do with the fact that I hit on yoga as something I loved doing and it was easy for me to get up in the morning or go to class on a freezing cold early Saturday morning in deepest winter. I remember finding real joy in feeling my body open up in postures – as if it became an expression of myself. I discovered that sometimes being on the mat would make me angry, sad, or just plain bored. And these feelings were connected to certain parts where stiffness or pain was being held. Hot tears would often spontaneously spring forth when I let go of whatever that long forgotten deep seated emotion was.
This relationship with myself continues and I’m learning and letting go all the time. Studying anatomy and physiology also helps me appreciate just how incredible our bodies actually are – not just flesh and blood and so much more complex than a physical ‘machine’. I recently heard renowned British choreographer, Wayne McGregor saying that we carry our personal archive in our body, and that it is never too late to get back in touch with it.
I’d say it’s vital that we own our own bodies. That way we take responsibility for our own health. Which doesn’t mean punishment, self-flagellation. Yes, it might mean braving cold dark mornings sometimes, or overriding that feeling of just wanting to crash in front of a box set. Finding some kind of sustainable form of fitness – whether it’s learning to dance, creating a garden, playing golf, or practising yoga – it doesn’t matter. Knowing that it goes way beyond just wanting to lose weight or have the perfect six pack; that it will keep us mentally and physically fit, happier, healthier, in tune with and more confident in ourselves is more than enough motivation.