They say that alcohol and food are the most overused and exercise the most underused de-stressor and anti-anxiety drug and they are right. When we get stressed our bodies produce Adrenaline hormone which increases glucose from diet to the muscles, giving us more energy. Without an outlet for this energy, we become hyperactive and unable to sleep. Without sleep we become more stressed and anxious and sleep even less. The stress and lack of sleep changes our behaviour and outlook on life and our appetite and our thoughts and feelings spiral into ruminations and habits which churn out aggression and depression and our behaviour changes as our mental and physical health worsens and we slowly go insane.
I am an athlete. I have been a competition runner my whole life, sprinting at school and then developing into a long-distance runner, succeeding in reaching my personal best mile, 5km, 10km, half marathon and marathon times. I swim, I play tennis, used to row competitively and I surf, cycle and dance. Exercise has always been my natural go-to for that sense of release and freedom and it makes me happy, connects me to friends, is fun and makes me feel strong and agile. I am a very active person who likes to do new things and running, cycling and hiking help me explore and get outside and be in nature, surrounded by the beautiful countryside and views that you so miss living in a busy city. I have always had a very positive relationship with exercise, never over or under-doing it. That was all until two years ago. I successfully reached my goal of running a marathon, (the proudest achievement of my life). I trained hard, running two and fro the 11-mile commute I had to work and I ran 44 half marathons in training. I did circuits at the gym and swam and did yoga and built my body into an elite running machine and I ate well during this period, living on pasta and cereal. However I ran as a novice marathon runner and without a trainer or team behind me I mismanaged my nutrition. I followed my rugby player brothers nutritional plan and advice out of magazines and online blogs. With an uncle having heart attacks and saturated fat seen as the enemy, my family reduced fat from our diet and so the increased muscle and reduced fat from my body combined with the reduced fat from my diet and led to me developing athletes triad. Then after the marathon I got promoted at work and with longer hours and a longer commute, I had less time to do sport. Stopping sport was terrible for my brain. I went from a “runners high” to a “runners low” and my anxiety levels went through the roof, made worse by the effect of no sport on my sleep and increased stress at work and home. I also had a “goal void” left from reaching my prized goal. My overuse of caffeine and highly sugared foods like sweets for the resulting insomnia didn’t help. The “sugar free” foods to protect my teeth I ate were full of sweeteners, like speed giving you energy. My phones bright screen and constant use of technology (for my job and social life, we are all on our phones for everything), stole sleep from me further and since I have always found it hard to sleep, this made it even harder. The lack of sleep made me irritable and stressful and I developed anxiety and this stole my appetite completely. I became less able to manage feelings and unfortunately control over food became my way of coping with this. Then inadequate nutrition made me hungry angry or hangry and increased anxiety further and stole my appetite for all the joys in life. The absence of sport spiralled into an eating disorder.
I am sporty. This is a large part of my identity. Outdoorsy exercise like running gives me a sense of happiness, escapism and freedom that I so enjoy. It was stopping sport for a completely desk based office job which was a cause of my eating disorder as I swapped my “runners high” for a low and missed the sociability of my sports club. Recovery for me means going back to the fit and athletic identity I was before.
Recovery for me meant going back to the fit athlete identity I had before. To be the strong and active, enthusiastic and energetic person I knew myself as instead of the weak and frail anorexic I had morphed into. It wasn’t just the image in the mirror I didn’t recognise but my whole persona. I didn’t know how to be this non-sporty, happy, gregarious and extroverted me. Yet to be active you need strong bones and to get strong bones you need to gain weight to be a healthy BMI and so this meant further prolonging my exercise limitations. For two years in anorexia recovery I did little more than walk, limited dancing and yoga and this required considerable patience from me as I just wanted to be free and feel the wind in my hair and the swell of a surfboard under me. I write as I accept that once severely malnourished and in recovery, limiting activity helped me to gain the necessary weight and without this, my body would have suffered further. However, I don’t want my eating disorder experiences to over-ride my athlete identity. I was and remain, a strong advocate of being healthy and to me exercise is an absolutely vital part of this.
Outdoors sports, with friends and nature and a fit and healthy body, bring so much joy to life and keep you sane. I recovered to go back to the sporty, fit and healthy me I was before, an advocate for public health.
Exercise, mental and physical fitness is health. It keeps you sane as it promotes creativity and reduces anxiety and depression symptoms and physical pain (endorphins are natural analgesics which reduce pain) and it makes your organs and bones stronger. It even makes you cleverer as it promotes brain neurogenesis (the formation of new brain neural pathways). Don’t take an anti-depressant or anti-anxiolytic drug, don’t see a therapist, let a dance class or group run be your medication. Run away a bad day and surf the waves of life’s up’s and down’s. Good food, people and exercise are the best medicines!