Updated: Jan 29
My fitness journey began with a red letterbox.
To be more accurate a walk to a red letter box. It was a journey down my road and turning right. It will have taken about two minutes each way, a few hundred feet.
It might be easy to look at a personal trainer and think "yeah but they are naturally fit and active - they aren't me"
I am not naturally fit or active. I hated PE at school. I spent my 20's not thinking about how much or how little my body was moving; I had other priorities, a career in the NHS, a relationship, a friend who was terminally ill. Between my job, my friend, may cat being hit by a car and my partner's chronic health I spent pretty much all day every day looking after those I cared about and driving between hospitals. I am yet to meet anyone that hasn't experienced some sort of difficulty or trauma, so my story is not unusual. As a mental health professional I seemed to be under the impression that I was different from every human being and that I would be immune to stresses of what was going on around me. If I kept busy enough it wouldn't be able to catch up with me. As you can guess I am not an alien or wonder woman and it did catch up. I ended up velcro'd to the couch watching daytime TV, eating party bag crisps. As a mental health professional I knew what I needed to do, but it felt impossible. So one day I told myself, I need to go to the letterbox. I didn't have a letter to post. I chose the letter box as it's a place you can do a 180 degree turn and no-one will think it is unusual.
If I had told myself that the letterbox should have been easy then I may never have tried as my experience of finding it hard would not have been validated. If I had told myself I needed to go further I would never have left the house. For me the red letter box worked. I left the house, nothing bad happened and I gained a teeny tiny bit of evidence that my life did not need to be a fatigued mess watching Jeremy Kyle. Each day I would walk a little further but always to a place where I felt like I had a reason to be, that I could justify to a stranger that I had a right to be there, the shop, the chippy, the supermarket. 10 minutes from my house there was a gym. One day I got that far. Keen to demonstrate to myself that my journey was purposeful I walked in and asked to look around, they gave me two day passes to see if I would like it and booked me in with a gym instructor to show me how to use the equipment. I had a reason to go back. I did go back. Their marketing ploy worked and I signed up.
A year after dieting 80% of people regain weight. It is estimated that anywhere between 50-75% of gym memberships go unused. 60% of people who quit smoking return to it within a year. We know the health messages and we spend 100's of pounds a year making the first steps towards a goal but how do you achieve it and then more importantly sustain it. The sense of setting an expectation and then failing at it can lead to decreased motivation. The negative thoughts saying that you need to be doing more hold you from building the foundations.
Since the red letterbox days I live a balanced active lifestyle. To me a balanced lifestyle means having a mix of purposeful activity, downtime and the activities that you need to do each day to look after yourself.
I do not worry about weight or body image, I enjoy moving my body and I love food. I love expressing myself through clothes and hair colour and see that as an extension of me rather than a compensation of something missing.
Since the letterbox days my routine and fitness activities vary. I have achieved personal challenges, Yorkshire Three Peaks, a half marathon, dead lift 1.5x my own body weight, a 3 hour zumbathon.
But it's not the big stand alone challenges that are the achievement. Based on my experience of nearly 20 years as an occupational therapist and keeping up with "new ground breaking research" I have been able to work out why I have sustained the changes of an active lifestyle.
The one thing you can do for yourself right now is to give yourself permission to go and find doing something hard and give yourself permission to be imperfect and make errors or adapt. We can hold onto perfectionism, self destruction or expectations because we think letting go will leave a void. If you want my experience and support in developing this skill have a look at the packages that I offer and get in touch.
Also ask yourself in which category does any movement activity that you do fall into. Is it self care, leisure or productivity? If your routine feels heavily in one area chances are you will sustain a movement activity more if you can find something that fits within another. For example a colleague of mine had signed up to a gym, she never went. She realised she was seeing the gym as work, when she was already overworked. What she needed was something that felt like leisure that involved socialising. She signed up for a marital arts class and found this fun and was able to sustain it as it became a leisure activity.
Within my free resources I have a handout on the qualities needed to make sustainable habit changes. Ultimately the self compassion to allow yourself to find something hard or uncomfortable will create opportunities for hope, movement and for living a life within your values.
Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT