Sport has been important to me all my life. Through tennis in the local park with my best friend as a teenager; soccer training, matches and travel whilst at university; swimming to get rid of those extra pounds gained in pregnancy; a random year of Gaelic football in Rome; and playing in a squash league more recently, I’ve gained so much from all kinds of sport. Fitness. Competitiveness. Resilience. Stamina. Friendship. Team spirit. And that wonderful post-exercise feeling of crashing out with that warm glow on your cheeks and in your veins.
Enter a Major Depressive Disorder and all that vanished. Keen to keep fit? No chance. Feeling competitive? As if! Resilience and stamina? Can’t even get out of bed. Friendship and team spirit? Would rather be on my own. Warm glow? Who cares? At least, that’s what it was like to start with. I could barely motivate myself to get out of bed and move to the sofa, let alone exercise. Having a dog did force me to do something every day but I walked so slowly that I couldn’t exactly claim it was sport!
Then, with the encouragement of my therapist, I slowly began to realise that exercising again might actually help me. Sure, I didn’t want to compete on the squash court – playing against strangers in a confined space definitely wasn’t what my struggling mind wanted to cope with – but there were other options. Following encouragement of a mental health nurse who had visited me at home, I began with a simple step. He’d suggested putting my sports clothes on as soon as I woke up. That way I would be ready for exercise if and when I felt like it. I was a bit dubious to start with but I gave it a go. By the third day, I was standing on our cross-trainer in the living room, determined to give it a go. The words of my GP echoed in my head. “Even if you move for just five minutes a day, it’s a start.” So that’s just what I did.
Five minutes a day for a few days. At the time, I was having awful nightmares which caused me to begin every day with adrenalin pumping wildly around my body. As the five minutes became ten, I began to realise that exercising was killing all the adrenalin, fear and anxiety the night had brought me. This spurred me on and I was soon doing fifteen, then twenty and then thirty minutes every morning before doing anything else. Having woken up mentally exhausted, I soon had physical exhaustion to go with it. That was actually a good thing. It meant I could relax both my mind and body, resting to get over the night’s traumas, before planning my day ahead.
As the weeks went by, using the cross-trainer inside regularly turned into cycling outside. I would go ten or fifteen miles (this is very easy in flat-as-a-pancake Holland!), with a pause at the beach half way. So much movement and fresh air gave me a buzz while I was out and allowed me to enjoy an afternoon nap, free of nightmares and invasive thoughts once I got home. This got even better when, inspired by an article I’d read about the benefits of it, I started to swim in the sea during my pauses at the beach. Now September in Holland is a pretty cool 12-15 degrees Celsius and there’s often a biting wind on the seafront but, if nothing else, those swims were certainly invigorating!
More recently, as I am now back at work, it became harder to find time to exercise. I stopped for a month and was a bit slow to realise how that affected both my mood and energy levels. Prompted by my husband’s encouragement, I’ve started to cycle to work. This is a great way to ensure that I fit it in now that my routine is more intense again; as well as a lovely way to connect nature for an hour a day. The ducks in the image above are a common occurrence on the cycle paths, as our beautiful trees and calming canals.
I wouldn’t go as far to claim that exercise suddenly changed everything. There were still days that I couldn’t be bothered to do anything. There were plenty of days when exercising was all I managed to do. And there were lulls along the way when I stopped exercising for two or three weeks at a time. But what I can say with conviction is that when I managed to take those steps, whether it was only to put my sports clothes on or to cycle fifteen miles and have a swim in the sea, it always made a positive difference to my day. And when I had those lulls, I know that it always held my progress back.
I might not be as fit as when I was in my soccer team. The only competition has been with my mind when it hasn’t wanted me to do anything. I still don’t have the resilience or stamina to exercise and work full-time and be a Mum and be a wife (all of which I did for years without a problem); and I would far rather exercise on my own than with anyone else.
But I am moving. I am getting that warm glow in my cheeks and through my veins. And I am killing the adrenalin, the fear and the anxiety. At least for a while, anyway. It makes a difference. It really does.
What can you do that makes a real difference to you?