I’m pretty vocal about how I use exercise to manage my mental health & it is now a huge part of my life. I honestly believe it has kept me alive. I am not a natural runner or athlete, I am probably the opposite, so I thought it might be useful to share how my relationship with exercise has changed over the years.
As a child and teenager I mainly hated exercise. PE and games lessons were dreaded. At school it was pure humiliation, just an extension of the shame I felt every day anyway- I was bullied for many years which had a profound affect on me. I remember being forced to run and giving up after 30 seconds,having a painful stitch and crying. People like me were left alone at the back whilst the teachers only encouraged the athletic types. I took dance lessons out of school, but also struggled with fitting in there. I frequently felt left out and inadequate, and not good enough . Later I developed body image issues and disordered eating. Around this time I started to run again, by myself, but this was a joyless task. It was purely to burn calories and to punish myself. I hated my body and hated myself. I consider myself very lucky that I managed to pull back from my difficulties around eating & I somehow became more accepting of my body as it was, as things could have got much worse. But I still did not feel that exercise was for me & my only association with it was tangled up in these negative experiences of calorie burning & restricting food.
Things began to change when I joined a gym back in 2011. A friend was joining & persuaded me to try it. I tried all sorts of classes I had never done before & began to notice that endorphins could boost my mood. It would never be a magic cure& I struggled with my mental health- but it did something. My friend ended up cancelling her membership, but I stayed- and I was hooked. I felt I had reclaimed exercise from my former self- it was no longer about diet and weight, it was about feeling stronger, and sometimes more balanced in my mind. I started to try bodypump classes & lifting weights. I loved these & enjoyed challenging myself every week. Even if it was a horrible day, for that hour I could get some space from my intrusive thoughts. I was at uni at the time & I think it really helped me to get through my degree.
I had stayed away from running though, as it still felt too connected to bad body image. But I noticed that friends were running, and training for half marathons. We started to run together. It felt different now- it was for me, on my terms. It didn’t matter that I was slow (I still am slow) but it felt good. On International women’s day 2015 I joined a group of women to run a 5k around Leeds city centre & that felt like a turning point. I remember that I nearly didn’t go to the event as I was struggling so much with anxiety. But I did & I even felt a tiny bit proud. I started to enter events with my running buddy, we completed 10ks and trained together for a half marathon in September 2015. I chose to fundraise for Leeds Mind, where I was volunteering at the time. The training, like my mental health, was up and down. Some days I did not want to run, sometimes I felt suicidal when I ran & the thoughts were all encompassing. Other days I felt great, & in the flow. On the morning of the race I was incredibly nervous. I worried I wouldn’t be able to do it & let everyone down who had sponsored me. The race was HARD. I threw up at the end. But I completed it and ran it all.
Since then I have run two more half marathons, 10 mile races, and other events. Which brings me to my next challenge: a full marathon! I’ve entered the Yorkshire marathon in October. I’ll be raising money for Samaritans. My training has started & it’s not easy. I’m trying to share as much of the mental journey as possible, in as honest a way as I can, and future posts in this blog will reflect that. I also feel there will be parallels with my marathon training as I undertake the work I’ll be doing in therapy.
26.2 is a huge distance & means a huge amount of work, but in reality it is nothing compared to living with mental health difficulties. I try to hold onto this on bad runs & awful days. The good runs are always worth the struggle.