April 23, 2017

Life sometimes deals you an unexpected plot twist, something that tests you, pushes you or challenges you in a way that you’ve never experienced before. Sometimes this is positive, sometimes this is negative, but it’s almost always valuable or educational.

Around Christmas, my personal circumstances changed in what felt like an open and close of an eye, and I found myself suddenly single once again, battling with all of the emotions that a break-up normally entails: guilt, anxiety, grief, despair, loss, panic, solitude, anger, regret, fear; you know, all the great ones. For what felt like an eternity (in reality it was only a couple of months), this emotional carousel had my head in a complete spin, and I struggled to imagine the clouds parting or a sense of normality (or a new normality) ensuing.

Rare are the times in life when we are afforded the space or time to check in with ourselves and listen to our inner voice without interference. In previous times of emotional turmoil, I have struggled to find a rope to pull myself to safety. I have relied heavily on those around me and often completely lost confidence in myself and my ability to cope. However, this time, as I leapt towards an uncertain future, there was one thing that kept me focused and confident that I would be OK: exercise. Even on days when I struggled to connect with my surroundings or perform the most basic of tasks because of crippling levels of anxiety, the familiarity of my exercise routine gave me a sense of purpose and structure that I clung onto desperately.

People often speak of the benefits of physical exercise on your mental health and balance, and I have always understood this a reference to the warm endorphin buzz that follows a run, cycle or visit to the pool. However, over the past few months, I’ve experienced numerous mental benefits of exercise that span far beyond just a hormone hit. The following are just a few examples:

Discovering the joy of solitude

I’m one of those people who has always struggled with their own company. I remember an old boyfriend complaining about my constant desire to do everything together, and inability to understand why he would occasionally prefer to be alone than with me, cos, I’m great right? Having lived with my most recent boyfriend, I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands post break-up, and quickly had to learn how to find ways to be OK on my own. Step in exercise. I’ve never been one for team sport or group exercise, in fact, I’m positively antisocial when it comes to working out. I have offended many a kind friend over the past year or two who has excitedly suggested we run or swim together. I think this is because through exercise, I have finally discovered the joy of solitude, rather than a newfound intolerance for human company.

As we grow older, the opportunities to spend time alone become fewer and further between, but when I take myself out for a run or get on my bike, I have the time and space to work through any difficult thoughts or emotions, and usually find that by the end of it, I have a greater sense of clarity. Not wanting to fall into the trap of filling my free evenings and weekends with booze and other unhealthy pursuits, I have, therefore, used exercise as a productive way to reclaim my free time and be at peace in my own company. Exercise classes have been a particular silver lining in this respect, because they have the benefit of feeling like a social activity.

Learning that emotional pain, like physical pain, is just temporary

Since embarking on my weightloss and fitness journey last year, as a relative exercise novice, I have experienced a fair amount of physical pain. From the short-term pain of pushing yourself to run faster or further, to the pain the day after a kettlebell class (WTF was that about?) or of an injury, pain, in exercise, is inevitable. Up until now, I have, as an anxious person, feared pain and tried to avoid it at all costs. But pushing the limits of what I’m capable of in a spin class or on the treadmill has given me a newfound appreciation for pain, which has, in turn, made me fear it less. Accepting that pain is an unavoidable but temporary part of human existence has helped me to feel more comfortable with negative emotions, and therefore calmer and less anxious. Bingo.

Establishing a sense of structure and routine

Going through a break-up is a weird thing: one minute the years of your life up until your retirement are mapped out ahead of you, and the next minute you’re sitting on your sofa wondering how you’re going to fill the days. It’s odd. In the early days, I struggled with not being able to visualise how my life would look over the next few days, weeks, months or even years. But the gentle routine of exercise is a stabling commitment of the type that you crave when you feel a bit at sea. It helped me to find my sea legs, to push through the difficult days and to find a sense of purpose and belonging, and for that, I will forever be truly grateful.

Gaining a solo sense of achievement

When you’ve been used to doing things as part of a two, having something that you can achieve on your own is important. Through exercise, I was able to set myself new goals and challenges, and push myself to achieve physical feats of which I had never dreamt myself capable. The regular sense of achievement that exercise affords you is fantastic for boosting your confidence and self esteem, particularly when you’re as talented as I am at putting yourself down. Through learning a new sense of discipline and pushing myself physically, I have also felt more proud of myself than I had ever let myself be previously.

Learning how amazing our bodies actually are

Bodies get a lot of flack; from us, from the media, from those around us. They’re often a source of shame or embarrassment, and the focus of many people’s self criticism. But actually, when you think about it, they’re bloody marvellous. The things that you can achieve and do when you set your mind (and body) to it are endless, and as long as you’re patient, the results can be really surprising. Seeing my body buckle under the weight of a barbell, only to come back stronger the next week is just incredible, and is something to be in awe of, rather than a source of shame.

So even though I may appear to be single again, I am actually in a very loving and committed relationship with a guy named Gym. He’s reliable, always there when I need him, makes me stronger and builds me up; I think we’re going to be very happy together.