I don’t remember ever having a good relationship with my body.
I don’t mean how it looks, although there is that. But how it functions, or struggles to function. I feel guilty saying that – lots of people have bigger struggles than me. And yet, for most of my life, I’ve seen my body more as an enemy than a friend.
In primary school, I realised that just because I felt like I was copying the moves right in dance and gym, didn’t mean I was. I was the last in my class to learn to swim 25m – I can’t honestly remember whether or not I managed 50m. I hated any kind of running game, because I was so. very. slow. I bumped into people a lot. PE was a lot of red-faced falling over, or failing to catch the ball or get through the hoop.
We’ve stopped asking children who aren’t good at maths to do mental arithmetic out loud in front of other students. But every sports day, I got to go out and show half the school and the watching parents how great I was at being last in every race.
By secondary school, I hated exercise. I hated sports. I hated PE. I never wanted to exercise in front of other people again. Of course, there was no escaping PE lessons being a thing, but fortunately only those who were good at PE had to compete on sports day, so there was that. Then – freedom. I left school. The only time I had to worry about doing these kinds of competitive physical activities in front of other people was team building days. Thank goodness!
But more recently, a few things have happened. Among those things was being diagnosed with dyspraxia. Also amang those things, my brother introduced me to Walk 1000 Miles – a challenge (run by Country Walking magazine) to walk 1000 miles in a year.
Before being diagnosed, I wouldn’t even have considered it. I’d have been too busy beating myself up for being useless at exercise, and I’d never give myself the chance.
But I had now been diagnosed. I never anticipated how having that official label would really change my relationship with myself. Something about having that diagnosis, knowing that I wasn’t making it up or exaggerating my difficulties, helped me to be more compassionate with myself; helped me allow myself to be bad at exercise, and also push myself to do more anyway. To do that for my mood, and my health, and my self-esteem. And because I have this label, I feel more okay with having to take it slow, with taking longer to make progress. I’ve finally given myself permission to give it a go even if I’m not sure I’ll succeed. It’s okay to go at my own pace.
So I started walking more. I decided I’d only count outdoor miles, and off I went, plodding round the park or the shops. Initially, I told no-one other than my brother what I was doing – just in case I failed or it didn’t last.
A month in, I was going okay. Some bruises, some falls, and I’d learned stretching really does help, especially when I focused on walking fast enough to count as exercise. I started to think maybe I could do this.
A couple more months. A few more bruises.
When I’ve tried to make lifestyle changes in the past, they usually fall apart around the four-month mark. This time, there was a definite dip in my progress, but I kept going. I pushed through.
I started, tentatively, to tell people. And very quickly, all that shame from when I was a kid came rushing back.
“Oh that’s easy,” they said. “You’ll do that no problem. But it’s good you aren’t taking on anything too big.”
Or the only reaction was a raised eyebrow that I might interpret as “That’s not like you,” or “You’ll never manage that,” or “Sorry, why is that even worth making a goal?” but that I hope meant something more supportive.
And I felt stupid again. Because to me, this is not an easy goal. It’s not a sure win. I nearly didn’t make it past four months. It’s daily effort, because somehow going for that walk is still not a habit (although it’s getting there!). I kept wanting to share my progress, my success, and then thinking… to them it’s nothing. They don’t understand. I felt ashamed and thought maybe it’s not an achievement, not really – just another thing that most people can do.
Of course, not getting the reaction I wanted was also partly my fault. I wasn’t always very good at saying that it was a big deal to me, or explaining why. And not everyone reacted that way – some were much more positive and supportive. I try to focus more on that, now.
10 months on, I’m still going. I hit 500 miles during the summer and claimed my first ever medal.
Last month, I made it to 1000 miles to get my second medal!
I’ve started sharing that, and just telling people I’m proud to have done it.
For me, this is huge. It’s the first time in my adult life that I can honestly say I do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. It’s the first time I’ve set myself a physical activity-based goal, ever – let alone achieved it. It’s the first time I’ve attempted a lifestyle change and lasted more than four months. It means that I can get to places I wouldn’t have been able to get before and think about new challenges. Despite the touristy combination of walking and lots of standing still during a recent city break, I was less exhausted than on previous similar trips. I’ve started the Green Chain Walk in London. I’m thinking – very, very tentatively – that one day (with a lot of preparation!) I’d like to walk Hadrian’s Wall.
So whilst I’m really, really pleased for my friends that this strikes them as easy (and I’m actively trying to interpret that as them having faith in me rather than misunderstanding the challenges involved), please remember that what is easy for you may not be easy for someone else.
I’ve found a place where I can be glad of my body and what it does for me. I hope that, whatever the strengths and limitations of your body, you have or can find a place like that, too.
What’s your proudest achievement so far?