RED January: Active Everyday To Beat The Blues Away

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If you’re on Instagram it’s quite likely you will have seen some people going on about RED January. Maybe you think it sounds like another new year resolution fad like: Veganuary (please don’t shoot me, I’m an animal too) or Dry January, for those pretending that quitting alcohol is hard for them after an indulgent Christmas. Dietary cleanses and detoxes are once again circulating although I’m not in on the scoop of which one is most trendy this year. Are we still on the Whole 30, alkaline and keto “lifestyle change” tips? Either way it seems that whatever direction we turn you can’t help but be faced with lifestyle challenges promising to transform you into a new you and make you feel miraculously better about your shitty life. RED January could fall into this trap if you frame it in such a way, but it needn’t do.

Run Every Day January is a campaign to encourage people to be active on a daily basis throughout January in an attempt to buffer against the blues. Unlike the title suggests, you don’t have to run every day, I think RED January is just easier to market and brand than MED (Move Every Day) January. A lot of people do interpret RED January as another punitive challenge and as such, that you have to run every single day. It isn’t and this defeats the purpose of the campaign. Instead you just move, whether that’s a kick about in the park with your kids, walking to the shops instead of driving, running a Park Run or doing some yoga. You’re not supposed to break yourself over it, it is quite the opposite; it is about prioritising and taking the head space to move your body, connect with your body and in the meantime reap the benefits of moving for your mood.

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There are heaps and heaps of evidence for the positive effects of exercise on our mental and emotional well-being. It is now common knowledge that we can’t avoid to the point of GPs prescribing Park Run for mild depression in patients. Don’t be fooled, it isn’t a cure-all but it is a good place to start in terms of looking after yourself. Despite the accessibility of moving, 1 in 3 adults and children in the UK do not get enough physical activity. Let me repeat this. 1 in 3 adults and children in the UK do not get enough physical activity. This is quite shocking and with the benefits of exercising being so vast and varied, it really is an under tapped resource that most of us have.

I don’t mean that in a “no excuses” kind of way. It’s not easy starting to get active from being inactive for a period of time. It’s daunting, it’s hard work and sometimes it hurts but bear with me. Bear with yourself because in the long run you’ll be glad you got up and did it (pun entirely intended).

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There are numerous ideas and theories as to why achieving adequate physical activity is so difficult. Sometimes how we frame the idea of physical activity in our minds can really affect our perception of movement (Mental Health Foundation, 2013). Is it an extra and particularly painful chore to fit into our already busy schedules? Or is it a part of your self-care regime? Admittedly, with January being one of the coldest and darkest months of the year often curling up somewhere cosy with a book or a film feels immediately much more appealing. The greater benefits of movement may not be such an immediate gratification, but doing a steady amount will usually provide some hard-earned gratification immediately after exercise. So perhaps, the delay of immediate gratification by 30 minutes isn’t the worst after all.

The health benefits of movement are numerous, particularly for our mental well-being: from providing a protective factor to developing depression and anxiety (Fox, 1999) to increasing our work productivity and performance (Wiese, Kuykendall and Tay, 2017). The best news? You don’t have to go hard or go home; no matter how small or unimpressive you may perceive the achievement and effort to have been, any activity is better than doing none at all: what have you got to lose other than 30 minutes to try and see? (Mental Health Foundation, 2013).

The results from last year’s RED January participants speak for themselves. Last year in a survey of 3000, 87% of REDers felt significantly better physically and mentally after January 2018 from partaking in the challenge. Aside from the RED January challenge and their partnership with the mental health charity, Mind there’s oodles and oodles of evidence, scientific and anecdotal, about the benefits of moving your body.

This isn’t a weight loss message, but a 100% emotional wellness message. Regardless of your size, you DO NOT NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT before you can get active. There is no prescribed aesthetic or requirement in order to move. If you are concerned about your health impacting your ability to exercise I have added a link to a PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) here.

The important focus is just to get moving, preferably in a way that’s enjoyable to you. Exercise does not have to be punitive, and in fact, to get the most from working out a healthy push of your limits is encouraged but don’t put yourself off forever. Start small and keep it real. Punishing yourself for eating something, or to look a certain way is not going to harvest the positive results that make you feel good, empowered and emotionally sound. It will only serve to do the opposite.

In this respect, the virgin active ad recently is a good message: Enough.


Sources:

Fox, K.R. (1999) The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition. 2(3a) pp.411-418.

Mental Health Foundation (2013) Lets Get Physical. London: Mental Health Foundation.

Wiese, C.W., Kuykendall, L. & Tay, L. (2017) Get active? A meta-analysis of leisure-time physical activity and subjective well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 13(1) pp.57-66.

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Dumping “Body Image” in Return for “Body Love”

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Diet culture is everywhere. It is pretty difficult to avoid, especially when dental adverts are colluding success rates with weight loss rates, and big influencers like Kim Kardashian are partnering with companies like Flat Tummy Co. to promote appetite suppressing products to their hoards of followers. It is difficult to believe that being in a body that doesn’t fit the beauty ideal of slim, toned and strong is OK. It’s hard to believe that you too are an acceptable body or that you can run a marathon.

Bryony Gordon and Jayda Seza ran the marathon this year in their underwear to show that runner’s bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. Being a different size to the bountifully pushed ideal does not mean you can’t enjoy physical activity, that you can’t be strong and most of all that you can’t be healthy. There are so many brilliant body positivity activists now showcasing that you can be “bigger” and healthy. There is a wave of activists fighting back against the body fascism and fat phobia in the name of “health”.

Since recovering from my eating disorder admittedly with a helping push from my meds increasing my weight in a way that was out of my control, I learned to relinquish any form of “control” over my body. I knew this time around on Quetiapine that it worked for me, but for it to keep on working for me I had to stay on it. Without it I relapse, plain and simple. A toss-up occurred between keeping a sense of control over my “recovered” weight and remaining mentally unwell, or relinquishing such control and giving the Quetiapine a real chance to work in the longer term. This was a very scary time for me. I have spent a decade of my life at war with my body, trying to control it and living in the safety confines of my eating disorder. Suddenly, recovery took a whole new turn – I wasn’t only maintaining a “healthy” weight, I was letting this medication cause havoc with my appetite and metabolism. If I had any hope of maintaining some stability with my moods though, this was it. Having tried most other medications suitable for my illness that this was the one that worked if I let it – and by let it I mean staying on it regardless of the weight gain. I made the only decision I could if I wanted to really start building any sort of future for myself. I stayed on the medication.

I learned a lot during this time. I learned that being well in a bigger body was definitely the right decision. My fitness journey into running, climbing and falling in love with movement, in addition to my studies in anatomy and physiology have caused a complete dimensional shift, and ultimately an entirely different view for me, on what body image is.

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Although I am no longer a skinny, my stomach has an extra padding of fat as opposed to the almost concave structure of previous years, and my thighs touch for the first time in my life. I have boobs, which are great although still slight, and it is easier to catch myself at an angle wherein which I have a double chin on show. I can shake my arms, and they wibble a little, and I have speckled cellulite over my thighs and bum when I tense. Speaking of which, I still have absolutely no bum. I need a larger size of clothes than I ever have previously yet still, no bum, and you know what? I am the most comfortable I have ever been with my body.

Yes, it looks a certain way in pictures and mirrors – but really, my body is not a picture. My body was not made solely to look a certain way. My body was made to function, to breathe, contract, relax, move, jump, run and skip for joy. My body lets me enjoy the senses of living be they the smell of fresh bread or dog shit on my shoe. My body brings me enjoyment in food, and digests it pretty well as energy in order to continue functioning as the amazing, complex piece of biological machinery that I am. Not only do I function, but my body allows for me to have a mind and a conscience. My body allows for emotions, and it fights diseases so I can still keep on enjoying experiences and living healthily. My body is not a picture. My body is so much more than that.

The sum of all this? I value my body more for what it can do, where it can take me, and the experiences it can give me. I’m no longer so hung up or concerned with looking a particular way, but more in doing particular things. Sure sometimes I have a momentary dip in confidence, sometimes I catch myself iterating diet culture messages of too much, need to lose weight, pain is gain and all that tom fuckery – but my choice in responding is to try to check in with myself when I notice these thoughts cropping up. I remind myself I am more than my mirror image and always will be.

I want to climb walls, and climb them better. I want to gain strength and resilience, and run all these races that I’ve signed up for. I want to dance, and move, and shake and enjoy what my body makes achievable for me every single day. I want to celebrate my strengths, and work on enjoying my body in more ways than I can possibly imagine. I can eat wonderful foods thanks to my body. I can conquer feats I never before thought would be possible for me like The London Marathon. I can have sex and enjoy all the sensations that brings. I can get myself around every day, and my legs do a fucking fantastic job of getting me around London on my bike. My arms do a great job at allowing me to do all the things I enjoy:  writing, reading, playing the ukulele really badly, climbing, eating, drinking, and in a hap hazardous way they contribute to my atrocious list of dance moves that I like to bust out when the party’s right. My eyes, they let me see all these beautiful sights that make me thankful to see everything I can: nature, skylines, sunrises and tropical storms. I can smell the warmth of the rain, and the freshness of cut grass and fresh coffee. The complexity of these joys cannot be captured in a photo or a mirror. Life is richer than that and so am I, and so are you.

My awkward smile may hint at the joys I have been experiencing, and my over excited crazy photos may capture a moment, but how my body looks, fuck that. It’s not important. I am healthy. I am capable, and I am taking advantage of those biological wonders that nature has blessed me with. So it no longer matters that I don’t fit into my skinny jeans, and it no longer matters that my arms aren’t spindly spaghetti features. My face is no longer structured by emaciation and malnourishment, and my waist is no longer so tiny it’s to die for, quite literally. My body is giving me life, and it is up to me to capture and cherish that fact.

So for as far as my body image goes, it’s not about image; it’s about sensations, feelings, experiences and love. Instead I will say that my body image is largely irrelevant but my body love is engaging with a pattern of exponential growth.

So there it is. I fucking love my body – and I bet yours is pretty darn fabulous too regardless of how it looks.

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To The Bone Behind The Mask: Inside Anorexia

*Trigger Warning* – If you are experiencing or have experienced an eating disorder this post may be triggering for you.

The song of the morning birds has just begun, she can see through the crack in the curtain that the morning dawn is about to break. Her partner remains still as the night, unaware of the creeping day ahead. Pushing and kicking the duvet between her legs she rolls over to try and grasp at another few moments of peaceful slumber, “why is it that she can’t stay awake during the day and can’t sleep at night?” Tucking her extra pillow between her jarring knees for padding she twists her body so the least of her jutting angles are bruised from the mattress.

The tranquillity of peace is unbeknownst to her. Her only peace is found when calorie limits are adhered to, when pounds drop or measurements shrink; and despite the constant battle with herself and others, these moments are few. The human body can only lose at such a rate, she can only muster the strength to push herself to such a limit, and below nothing, there is no less to eat. Of course, she does eat, just not every day, but what more can she do to please this need?

The ruminations never desist, they merely quieten in a moment of victory, a moment when she has “done well”; she has adhered to the strict regime set by her demon of X calories, less calories, less calories. The congratulatory prize is small, a minor victory – and after a while does not extend to the praise of those around her as it had done when she began losing weight. No longer is she cooed with, “oh you look so beautiful”, “oh don’t you look marvelous, look at her cheek bones and toned stomach” or, “I’m so jealous, how do you do it?” There is a fundamental issue with society here; she was never overweight in the first place and she was never fat despite repetitious hollers. Her stomach isn’t toned, it’s bordering concave; her legs aren’t sculpted; they’re weak, aching and bruised; her arms possess no strength, they’re minute and painfully angular; her face isn’t chiselled like a catwalk model, but gaunt, lifeless and exhausted.

Her complexion pales whilst she walks through town smelling the foods she can’t have, staring in the windows of restaurant chains and eyeing up menus that she can’t even dream of ordering from. The thought fills her with a fantastical excitement at how good it must taste, but the engulfing fear and dread of actually eating it is too much. She had once felt empowered by her ability to say ‘no’, to deny herself and to not need but now she needed, and she wanted so desperately to say ‘yes’. She had become powerless to her disorder.

Wandering into the supermarket she’d stalk the aisles. Picking up foods she felt intrigued by and looking at it closely through the packaging. Turning it over and looking at the calories and fat grams, 90% of what she picked up had been a far cry from what she was now “allowed”, but with each package the fascination grew: if only she could taste, feel and enjoy food: longing to let herself need, to find true enjoyment and to just eat. Each packet was sat back on the shelf for someone else, someone less greedy, and someone who deserved to eat it. Aisle after aisle: dairy, confectionery, foreign food, it all amazed her. To just read the labels and ingredients engaged every morsel of her obsession until the anxiety and pressure to actually buy something began to creep in and ruin her fun. Leaving with nothing, she tried to sneak out without raising suspicion with security. She hadn’t stolen anything, but didn’t want to be pulled over because who spends two hours in a supermarket looking at food to walk out seemingly empty handed? She was painfully aware that her behaviour would be deemed as unusual.

When she got home, her cupboards were filled with foods she could eat. Feigning enjoyment of these choices to herself she was convinced that water on cereal was delicious and how could anyone not like a bowl of lettuce and mustard? Her demon had tricked her, fooled her into thinking in new ways and instilling relentless rules of survival: cutting up food into the smallest pieces possible, chewing x amount of times each time, no eating after 7pm but no eating before 5pm either, always eat alone, measure everything, weigh ten times daily. It went on. It went on and on. She was governed by barking orders from this voice within.

She had to keep it a secret. She had to lie. She had to remember everything she ate for the last fortnight. She had to count how many items she had consumed. She had to count calories or every bite, medications and vitamins included. She had to walk here, there and everywhere that she could. She had to exercise. She had to listen, she had to comply, because if she didn’t she would be berated to a withering heap. “You’re a fat bitch!”, “You greedy cow”, “You’re a failure and disappointment.”

Once immersed within the health services she has only more people to hide from, to lie to, to fight against. She is a slave to her own game. It’s not working out so well now; she has lost her autonomy, her independence, and her freedom. Caged in a cell of constant torture she is a shell of who she used to be: no longer laughing, no longer energetic, sociable, fun or fulfilling her potential.

What started as a diet to save her from “fat” hollers, what had started as a method of ‘self-improvement’ is gradually destroying everything she was. What started as a means to control her inner turmoil and world has grasped at her every molecule and refuses to let go. Entrenched, she is obsessed and caught up in the relentless need to abscond from greed, to not need and to be less. The “oh you look so beautiful”, has turned into, ‘Is she OK?”, “She looks so unwell.”, “I don’t know why anyone would want to be that thin. It looks disgusting” but the truth is, in her eyes for as long as she is alive, she will always be fat. She will never be thin and never has been thin and that really, ‘thin’ has become irrelevant. All she ever wanted was a bit of control, and to feel a bit better.

– If you want more information or are affected by this story, something-fishy.org and B-eat are good organisations for help, support and more information.

The Importance of Talking About Mental Health

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Heavy with lead through every morsel of torso and limb she tries to carry herself tall. Heaving an impossible weight and pushing on she gets by, dragging what may fall behind along the way. A fog has descended and thickened, clouding her vision, judgement and perception. A thick rain cloud of anger hangs over her head, a relentless thrashing of her senses persists. Hearing anything clearly becomes impossible and coping with daily life is an overwhelming task. Her thoughts are foreign to her previous self, morbid, dark and terrifying. Through her diminishing abilities she becomes frustrated and deflated, hopeless and surrendering. She is vulnerable, but not weak. This is no personal flaw and through no personal fault of her own; she is experiencing an invisible illness, a mental illness.

“Mental health problems affect the way you think, feel and behave. They are problems that can be diagnosed by a doctor, not personal weaknesses” – The Mental Health Foundation.

Those around her, loved ones, colleagues and friends may notice a change. Maybe she’s withdrawn, quiet, short-tempered or tearful and they may not understand, or perhaps they fear the unknown. Frustrations can rise, “she’s just not making an effort”, “she’s no fun anymore” and “you just have to get on with it” are all too easy a response, but ask yourself, is it the right response?

As tempers turn into turmoil, frustrations grate and ties wear thin she may start erupting into sky-high emotions, hearing voices or facing difficulties with food. What do you say then? Is she a psycho? Does she need to go to the loony bin and get out of your hair? Or is it just all in her fucked up head and she just needs to sort it the fuck out and stop it, this instant, right now? Believe it or not, these are the nature of responses I have received throughout my own journey and experiences with mental health difficulties. Dare I ask it, would this have happened had my illness’ been physical? I doubt it.

It is an abhorrent suggestion of absurdity to march into a cancer ward and demand that this has to stop, they have to stop their tumours and bodies from being affected by the illness, they must stop making a fuss of it, and they must stop dying from it – and that if they really must continue with this being ill from cancer thing they’ve got going on, could they please do it quietly, out of sight and act as if nothing is happening?

It is a despicable suggestion; cancer and mental illness alike need care, support and treatment yet mental health remains subject to negative attitudes of stigma, discrimination and invalidation yet the remarkable fact is that we all have mental health just like we all have physical health. Every year 1 in 4 of us will be affected, that’s 25% of the population, a whole quarter. Yet the experience of a mental health illness is often one of isolation and shame. The effects of which can be worse than the illness itself.

The invisibility of the illness does not equate to a lack of debilitating effects such illnesses can have on a person’s life: mental illness costs lives, it can diminish lives to a mere state of existence and make every day functioning a seemingly impossible feat. It can be overcome for many, and many people do recover or learn to manage their conditions whilst living fulfilling lives that are worth living again. There is hope, but in order to achieve that people need support, to be listened to, and acceptance.

This is why it is important that we talk about mental health; it affects every aspect of our lives: in how we function, enjoy and cope from day-to-day, and that instead of meeting these conditions with hatred and hostility, they are met with the care, compassion and support that these individuals need.

 

The (Virtual) Big Half

The Big Half was on the 4th March. It was a while ago now. So far ago that a virtual option was initiated because many people couldn’t travel to the start line because of The Beast From The East, and yesterday we had a great day of sun and warmth. In order to count, the half effort had to be completed and up loaded by Sunday 11th March.

The same weekend as The Big Half, Bath Half was cancelled. My Dad had signed up for that so we would have been running a half at the same time at different races, somewhat of a cool coincidence. After a few weeks of excited and nervous talk neither of us wound up running that Sunday. We agreed though, to complete our half efforts virtually together – him in Devon and me in London. So the following Saturday that was our plan. We set off around 1 with a drop in phone call at the start, somewhere around half way and after we finished. Our pace and fitness levels are in a similar region so when we did touch base at the halfway point and the end, we had both completed a similar distance, and finished in close time to each other.

I didn’t plan my route for this. I was volunteering on Saturday morning in Archway, so that was my start line. I glanced at the map and chose a direction. I had a rough route planned, with the destination of direction being home. At Camden I changed my game plan as I stumbled along the canal pathway. In Camden it was busy but as I pushed along the canal path it became more spacious, less crowded and quite pleasant.

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I’ve rarely been on the canal path in London. I’ve dipped on it here and there but I’ve never run along it. It was good, something I’d recommend and a lot of other people probably would considering the amount of people you see running them online and in real life. It’s ideal ground for distance or a quick jog because it’s flatter than a pancake. The scenery is a contrast to London’s usual smoggy buildings and over-packed roads. Then when I checked the map to see if I was still going to be in London if I kept going, read: the flyover motorway gave me in the inclination I was running pretty west, I realised it was time to leave the canal path. After some snaking through Ladbroke Grove, I hit the parks that touch edges with each other from Hyde Park to Green Park with some laps, then St. James’ Park before heading towards London Bridge along the South Bank.

“Running 13.1 miles on Saturday after volunteering turned out ot be the most relaxing day of the week.”

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Totally pooped on the train home!

It was a perfectly (un)planned distance route for a half, starting at Archway and finishing right outside London Bridge station – my fast track homeward bound. I had a lot of uni work on around this time, and trying to juggle studying with doing other img_4221things to relax is a balance I’ve not yet mastered. I’d spent a lot of time watching TV because that seemed like what people do to relax. I was wrong. I don’t run as frequently as I would ideally like myself to (a goal in the making), but running 13.1 miles on Saturday after volunteering turned out to be the most relaxing day of the week – and t

his is what I need to keep reminding myself when I decide to sit in my chair and watch TV.

Now my first half marathon medal of 2018 is hanging on my rack, exactly where it should be.