Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘exercise’

How to get the perfect body

You can tell it’s the start of a new year when the supermarket shelves are groaning with books on how to lose weight, and every other television advert seems to be for yet another weight-loss company. Social media becomes overrun with people discussing how much they hate their bodies and their preferred methods for that miracle fix. Magazines, especially those aimed at women, feature photographs of celebrities who dare to be less than airbrushed perfection at all times (for a great article about this phenomenon have a look at this post by my fabulous friend Pols).

I’m not immune to all this hysteria – in fact, as an obese woman with an eating disorder I’m very sensitive to it. I too hate my body and wish that I could magically transform it into a shape that I, and society, deem to be acceptable. Over the years I’ve probably tried most of the well-known diets, and although my spinal problems limit the amount of exercise I’m capable of that doesn’t stop me poring over fitness magazines, desperate to find a way to change my appearance.

But do you know what? These companies who promote their diets and weight-loss plans make millions, if not billions of pounds in profit from people like me. Because inevitably dieters fail (there’s a great discussion of the reasons for this here). But our society is so obsessed with bodily perfection that even knowing this, many of us continue to try new diets. Because we know that if we just try that little bit harder, obsess a little bit more and deprive ourselves of an assortment of foods, we can get the perfect body that society requires us to have. And then we’ll be happy…

Absurd isn’t it? And this kind of attitude is considered normal! But over the years I’ve come to realise that although it may be normal it certainly isn’t healthy. I have children now and I’m very careful not to talk negatively about my body when they’re around. They don’t even know that I have a set of bathroom scales, let alone see me use them. We don’t talk about good foods and bad foods but about foods giving you energy; some give you energy that lasts a long time and some give you energy that your body uses up quickly. My children (currently aged 4 and 2) don’t care what their bodies look like, only that they work. Sometimes that involves running, sometimes jumping around, sometimes climbing and sometimes contorting themselves into positions rarely seen outside a circus!

It’s dawned on me of late, as I’ve become increasingly irritated and impatient with the avalanche of body-hatred on social media, that we should all try to be more like this. After all it’s not what your body looks like that’s really important but what it can do. And I’m not just talking about physical activities either but the things our bodies do that we take for granted. Our bodies breathe, they give us information about the world around us, they absorb nutrients from our food and expel toxins. The majority of us are fortunate enough to have bodies that are pretty functional, enabling us to walk and talk, to think and feel physical sensations.

So to hell with the obsession about physical appearance. Yes, we should all eat as well as we can and exercise as much as we’re capable of in order to keep fit, but the perfect body is the one that enables you to do as much as you want to. While the popular “real women have curves” trope helps women larger than the ideal to feel more positive about themselves, it does a disservice to the hordes of women who don’t have curves. They’re just as real and just as prone to hating their bodies as their larger sisters.

The perfect body can be fat or thin, tall or short, apple-shaped, pear-shaped, in fact pretty much any shape! What I (and you, if you’ve been nodding along in agreement) need to do is start to respect our bodies. Ok, so my body is flabby and wobbly and parts of it don’t work as they should but it’s the only body I’m ever going to have. It’s sustained me for almost 33 years and hopefully will continue to do so for many decades yet to come. I have no wish to lie on my deathbed, looking back on my life and desperately wishing that I’d spent less time hating my body and more time using it to enjoy myself.

Is this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week a bit of an own goal?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Each year a different theme is chosen and this year the Mental Health Foundation have chosen physical activity. Their website says that “This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week aims to shift our motivation for physical activity to something we choose to do to increase our wellbeing”.

This makes sense, as it has become conventional thinking in recent years that exercise and other physical activity can increase the production of endorphins in the brain. And of course exercise doesn’t necessarily mean a 5 mile run – as this helpful page from the MHF website explains physical activity can include housework, gardening, going for a walk etc.

Unfortunately this theme for the week doesn’t seem to have been properly thought through. For a start the message being promoted through social media already seems to have shifted from ‘choosing to do physical activity to increase wellbeing’ to ‘exercise will help your mental health problems’. The Twitter hashtag #letsgetphysical is being used to enthuse about the benefits of gym visits rather than gardening. This isn’t the fault of the MHF of course, but it could have been foreseen and it isn’t helped by the MHF’s use of the the quote “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keep the mind in vigor” (Marcus Tullius Cicero) in their leaflet about physical activity.

Another problem with having physical activity as the week’s theme is that there are many people who have both mental illness and physical disabilities. Whilst a lot of these people will be able to undertake some form of physical activity there will be a significant number who can’t. And what of those whose mental illness is severe enough that they struggle to get out of bed, let alone go for a walk? As I understand it the idea that physical activity can help mental health only seems to apply to relatively mild conditions.

In fact, increased physical activity can actually have a detrimental effect on some people with mental illnesses. Those with ‘invisible’ disabilities such as CFS and fibromyalgia may well find that increased physical activity increases their fatigue which could put them at greater risk of depression. Speaking as someone who struggles to walk for more than a few minutes and at times finds it impossible to do any kind of housework, being repeatedly told that I need to increase my levels of activity is unhelpful as it makes me reflect on my increasing loss of mobility and lowers my mood. Those who suffer from eating disorders may also find this advice counter-productive, if not downright dangerous.

Some have already complained that this focus on physical activity as a kind of panacea for mental illness is almost akin to victim-blaming. There are already tweets under the #letsgetphysical hashtag asking why, if exercise is so good for mental health, sufferers wouldn’t get off their backsides and just do it? (Note again the confusion between exercise and physical activity). The implication seems to be that those who aren’t out pounding the pavements in order to beat their mental illness obviously don’t want to get better. This is damaging.

The final problem I want to discuss is that for some people exercise and other physical activity simply isn’t that effective. Some years ago I was enrolled in an ‘exercise prescription’ programme where I was able to use a local gym and go to classes for a pound a time. It was good and I enjoyed it – but it did nothing to help my crippling depression. For me, medication and a great support network are the most effective form of treatment and I know I’m not alone.

I’m not saying that the MHF shouldn’t have chosen this as their theme for Mental Health Awareness Week; it’s obviously quite successful in getting people talking and I’m sure there are many who will be helped by the message. However those who cannot partake in physical activity and those for whom it is a risky or ineffective treatment are being ignored and excluded by the very organisations that are supposed to support them.

Oh and one last thing. The #letsgetphysical hashtag means that I’ve been humming Olivia Newton-John for the last 36 hours. Not cool, MHF. Not cool.

My big fat problem

I was always a very active child – dashing all over the place, climbing trees, cycling, digging holes. I took numerous dance classes including ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. I was a Brownie and then a Girl Guide (as they were known then) and loved the camping, wide games and hikes. In my first couple of years at university I did a lot of extreme sports including skydiving, white water rafting and bungee jumps.

When I was 15 I started getting occasional twinges of pain in my lower back. By 17 I’d had to stop dancing. By 20 I needed to use crutches every now and again. At the age of 23 an MRI showed that I had 2 prolapsed discs in my lumbar spine. I was told that surgery was not an option so I tried all sorts of treatment, from painkillers and pain management clinics to various kinds of physiotherapy and acupuncture. Nothing helped and I was starting to gain weight.

It didn’t bother me too much. I was still fairly mobile and active and although my pain was constant I was able to ignore it most of the time. However as I got older my mobility decreased and my pain increased. By the time I was 26 the only exercise that didn’t exacerbate the pain was swimming and walking. So I did those; I swam twice a week, a mile each time, and walked whenever possible. Still my mobility gradually decreased though, and my girth increased.

I am now 32. I have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disorder; I still have 2 prolapsed discs but now my lumbar vertebrae are calcified as well. I use a walking stick most days or crutches if it’s really bad. And I am obese. Really, properly obese – about 5 stone over a healthy weight (according to BMI). I’m seeing a spinal surgeon next Friday and I know that one if the first things he’ll say is that I need to lose weight (as though anyone could be this fat and not realise!).

But how do you lose a large amount of weight when you can’t exercise? By eating less and eating healthily, of course. But (there always seems to be a but and I feel like I’m just making excuses) I can’t afford lovely healthy food and my mental illness is yet another hurdle. I comfort eat when I am stressed, unhappy, tired or in pain – so a lot. The psychiatrist who recently diagnosed me with cyclothymia and generalised anxiety disorder also said that I am a compulsive binge-eater. I merely nodded my head in agreement – I’ve been like this since childhood.

I know what I need to do. I need to stop bingeing, eat less and try my hardest to exercise when I can. And at night I lay awake plotting how to do this – I’ll only snack on fruit, I’ll eat mints when I get the urge to binge, I’ll stop baking with DD for a while, I’ll really cut down on portion sizes. Hopefully as I lose weight my pain may decrease, allowing me to exercise more.

But the next day I wake up and my first thought (after “Why is my 16 month old blowing raspberries on me at six in the morning?”) is always of food. I think about it all day. I think about what I want to eat, what we actually have to eat, whether I can bake anything today. While writing this I am mentally going through the kitchen cupboards to see if there’s anything I can snack on. I am obsessed with food and I have very little self-control. I know people who can open a packet of biscuits, eat one or two and put the remainder in the cupboard. I admire these people with something akin to awe. Because I can’t – I have one more, and one more, and one more, and then they’re gone. This applies to any junk food – sadly not to anything helpful like fruit!

I know what I need to do but I self-sabotage. You know the cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other? That’s me. I am constantly torn between what I know I should, must and need to do, and what my treacherous bingeing self wants me to do.

I can’t carry on like this. I am in constant pain, I struggle to lift and play with my children, I can’t remember the last time I cuddled up to DH on the sofa because it just hurts too much. I don’t want to have this relationship with food any more but I don’t know how to change. I don’t know how to quell the demon and let the angel win for once. I don’t know how to not be this person.

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