I am writing this on my phone, on the tube, in a rush. The battery is dying because I’ve been mindlessly scrolling through apps all morning and I’m on my way to ‘power yoga’ which I’m cramming in a couple of hours after a spin class because I know I need to do more mobility work this week. That’s really code for saying- I’ve been running too much and not stretching enough recently. I’ve chosen ‘power yoga’ because it sounds more challenging than my regular yoga class, gives me a point to prove.
All told, I seem to have got myself stuck in a bit of a moral quandary. What I advocate for is a slowing down of things, the cultivation of presence, of mindfulness, of calm. What I’m doing is putting my body and mind through several different kinds of unnecessary stress- work-related, time-related, exercise-related, social media-related, and on the list goes.
I’ve written around these subjects before, how we need to give our bodies and minds what they need in terms of exercise and how we need to be careful with our relationship to social media. I’ve also discussed the fragility of my own mental health when I’m not treating my head and body quite right. Currently I’m not entirely practicing what I preach, and it’s important to be honest about that. How I interact with the world and conduct myself isn’t always in line with what I believe when it comes to my own wellbeing or yours, and it has got uncomfortable enough that I need to write about it and more importantly, to change it.
First things first- the exercise bit. It is apparent to me that people of my generation-professionals in our 20s and 30s- particularly those of us trying to work and thrive in a major city like London, are under quite a lot of stress. That stress comes from so many angles but with work, busyness is king. I swear every conversation I have with another grown up these days is about being tired or being busy, as if those things make us more valuable, more important. They don’t. Or at least, they shouldn’t.
But this pattern of behaviour, of enduring stress and responding by going harder, bigger, faster, carries into our exercise patterns, and there’s a trend towards cramming in loads of high intensity training sessions around work and around our social lives. Lots of us just about squeeze these sessions in-arriving late without warming up and leaving early before a decent stretch- I know it because I see it in the classes I teach. The trendiest workouts have become the ones that can stress our bodies and minds the most. Loud music, flashing lights, and an attitude that no matter how tired or anxious you feel you need to move quicker, work harder, look better. Now, as I said, I teach these classes, so I have some justifications and clarifications to make here. I do think HIIT classes done well can be thoroughly beneficial- mentally therapeutic, a lot of fun, and a brilliant fitness challenge- just as long as they’re not done with excessive frequency, and not done when your body needs something gentler, or slower, or newer. I wrote about different types of movement our bodies might need here when talking about the link between depression and exercise last year. Exercise has been proven time and time again to have so many benefits for us physically and mentally, and for me it has really kept me sane and strong through so much, I work out five or six days a week and I love it.
But I also know this: I need to constantly be looking at why and how I’m working out. I used to use exercise as punishment- I’d have a big night out then force myself to run quick, painful miles to punish myself and move away from the damage I’d caused myself (and probably others) the previous night. Drinking loads after work then ‘sweating it out’ in a workout the next morning is, I promise you, not the way to do it. It is so dangerous to do that to our bodies. Maybe get a light sweat on on a long walk if that makes you feel better but pushing yourself to your limits when your body is not operating or responding at its best and is already trying to cope with the stress of the previous night, this can’t be a good thing.
These days I run because I have healthy goals I’m working towards, right now I’m working up to the London Marathon, but I always have to be careful not to overdo it- putting an extra speedwork session in to punish myself for not being quick enough the week before, when maybe the week before my legs were just a bit overworked and what they need is more rest. Or working out harder because I feel like I ate too much rubbish over the week before, instead of just accepting that some weeks I might eat a bit more and put on a couple of pounds and that’s fine. I’m still working on my acceptance of this. Of not using punishment or guilt as drivers to exercise.
Another truth bomb now- I wrote that article about the relationship between exercise and depression just a few days into my newfound sobriety. I am now seven months into that journey. I’m no longer on anti-depressants and find I am rarely running away from anything anymore when I work out, and that’s huge for me. That’s something that for at least a decade I didn’t think I’d be feeling. I know giving up the booze isn’t the answer for everyone, that for most people their relationship to alcohol is normal and enjoyable, but it’s really important to me that I say how much it has helped me in relation to my overall health. Mentally and physically these past seven months I’ve have seen more of a dramatic change than with anything else I’ve ever tried.
So on to the other thing I need to be honest about before everyone has quite enough of me and my honesty for one day thankyouverymuch- my relationship with my phone and social media is a problem, It is taking up too much of my time and increasing my anxiety whilst decreasing my relationship to the outside world. Sometimes I check my phone while I’m with PT clients. Sometimes I find myself posting the most inane Instagram stories that serve no purpose, just to see if the girl I fancy watches them. Sometimes I miss my train stop because I’m scrolling through square pictures of things I don’t care about. I am always in a rush, yet I always find 10 extra minutes to play on my phone, then wonder where the time went for my morning meditation that I know is crucial to keep my head in check for the day.
I don’t think we should stop HIIT training all together and just sit around and meditate and do a bit of stretching for the rest of our active lives. I don’t think we should all get rid of our smartphones and go and live in cabins in the forest (although that does sound nice), but here are a few simple things I’m going to commit to for the rest of April to see if I can train better, feel better, and get a bit closer to the values I promote so vocally.
1.To always include a yoga session in my weekly training, for my mobility and my head. Make it a habit rather than a challenge.
2.To stretch for at least ten minutes after training runs, instead of heading immediately for food and/or phone.
3. To spend an hour without my phone before bed- currently I sleep with it on the other side of the room which has made a massive difference to my sleep but I could be better.
4. To spend half an hour without my phone in the morning, getting my meditation done and letting my brain wake up a bit slower before going on overdrive.
5. To use my time on public transport to read or listen to podcasts.
6.Not to post anything to Instagram that is ONLY self-serving, but to only post things that could benefit at least one other person.
7. To take my rest day seriously, and really really allow my body to recover, fuelling it with good food and plenty of sleep.
8. To give people more opportunities for a break in my classes and start them slower, bringing the heart rate down from work-related or other stress before getting into the work out.
9. Never, ever train out of guilt.
10. Book a bloody holiday.