Have a seat. Get comfy. Maybe make yourself a cup of tea, because I’m about to tell why a holistic approach to health is key, and to do that I basically need to tell you my life story …
At the age of 23 my marriage broke down and I was left alone, an unemployed single parent to two boys. I decided I needed to ‘make something of myself’ so off I went to university to get my law degree. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be quite hard and I pretty much did everything I could to make it even harder on myself by telling myself that anything less than a first class degree at the end of it all would be a failure.
I got my first class degree, but I also got insomnia, weight gain, terrible skin and a bucket load of stress and anxiety along with it. The endless hours in the library eating all manner of sugary and carby food took its toll. As did the frequent all-nighters, fuelled by McDonald’s drive-through washed down with massive cans of energy drinks. At the beginning of my second year, my younger brother suddenly died. I turned to food, my constant companion and greatest comfort, and tried to smoother my grief with cakes and pizza. I don’t think the copious glasses of wine I drank to try to persuade myself I could keep going and do it all helped either.
While at uni I dabbled with health and fitness but my efforts were sporadic and sometimes counterproductive. I ran for fitness and for stress relief but I had never stepped foot in a weights room. As soon as life got busy, exercise was the first thing to go. As my weight crept up so did my feelings of panic and in desperation, I tried every yo yo diet going. Each one failed (surprise surprise!), and often left me heavier than before (and sometimes a lot poorer too). I watched in dismay as my size 10 jeans were replaced with size 12s. And then size 14s. And then I just switched to permanently wearing leggings.
But there was no time to think about my health now, or so I told myself because I had to go off to London and start my career. I landed my dream job and then managed to turn that into a nightmare too. Yet again I heaped so much pressure upon myself. Pressure to perform, to fit in, to be the legal superstar I thought I had to be. To be good enough.
The library all-nighters were replaced by long hours at the office, with only the biscuit cupboard for company (yes you read that right, we had an entire cupboard of biscuits). Dinner was often canapés and wine stuffed down my throat between schmoozing clients at networking events. I got heavier and less happy. I hated myself. I felt disgusting. A failure.
I decided enough was enough, so I did something about it. I spent my scant spare time scouring the Internet for studies and articles about health and fitness topics. I started paying more attention to what I was eating and I hired a personal trainer. By now I had figured out I wanted to be strong as well as very lean and I knew that was going to require weights so I became a reformed cardio bunny and newbie weightlifter.
I got up at 5am every morning to train. I stopped drinking and went strict paleo. I saw results but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to look like a fitness model, and it wanted it yesterday. It didn’t occur to me then that perhaps getting up at 5am to train hard everyday, when I was only getting a maximum of 6 hours of poor sleep a night might not have been the best idea. I didn’t think about how I was heaping more and more stress on my already stressed out and run down body.
The changes didn’t stick.
The stress and anxiety took up more and more of my life and seemed to squeeze out my gym sessions and meal prep time. I got heavier again. I stopped seeing my personal trainer and my training sessions become irregular and less frequent. It took me spiraling down to rock bottom before I realised I needed to make my health my number one priority. I was signed off work with stress, depression and anxiety and prescribed SSRIs by a psychiatrist. I got horrible side effects from the pills and they made my anxiety ten times worse. I no longer recognised the person I had become. My relationship ended. Things felt desperate.
So I started training again.
I started paying more attention to what I was eating. This time not because I wanted to look like a fitness model, but because I wanted to be well. I decided that I was going to pull myself out of the horrible blackness so I did what I do best, I made a plan. I started going to yoga classes again. I signed up to meditation courses and group meditation meetups. I tried really hard to be kind to myself. I fell back in love with lifting heavy things! I started seeing my training sessions as something I did for fun and not as punishment for being too big. I celebrated my increasing strength and paid little attention to the scales. I even joined a choir again because, even though my enthusiasm far outweighs my talent, I love to sing. I traveled. I learned to let go. And slowly, although it’s still a work I progress, I learned that I am good enough. I am enough.
It’s not easy admitting this all to the world at large. There’s still such a stigma around mental health and it’s hard to shake the feeling that suffering from depression or anxiety is somehow a personal failing. But I wanted to write about my experiences, because they’ve taught me how important it is to take a holistic approach to health and fitness, to consider the whole picture. And that’s an important message.
Are you really stressed out and not sleeping well? Then maybe skip the heavy lifting session for some gentle yoga or even just an early night. Are you not eating properly? Well then, get your nutrition dialed in before you start dialing up the training. Too many people see working out as a punishment for eating badly.
Workouts shouldn’t be a punishment, they should be something that makes you feel better, something that adds to your wellbeing not detracts from it.