To mark Self-Care Week, I’m revisiting my series The Seven Components of Self-Care, which first ran from February to April 2015. Nearly two years on, I’ve re-read and updated it a bit, and am reposting it every day this week. If you missed them, you can catch up with part one (sleep) here, and part two (support) here. Join in the discussion in the comments or on Twitter using #selfcareweek.
I say ‘sports’ because it alliterates with the previous topics and I’m in to that kind of thing. By it I mean exercise in general, not necessarily of the organised variety. My exercise of choice is a mix of walking and swimming. I do not run. I tried a ‘couch to 5K’ running programme once and got stuck at week three, which hurt both my knees and my lungs. I decided there had to be a better way, because I certainly wasn’t experiencing the ‘runner’s high’ I’d been promised.
I have friends who have fallen in love with running and now take part in distance-running events for fun. I’m not in that place, and I definitely speak as a bumbling numpty with no great athletic ambitions. If you’re not currently doing any exercise, please know that I get it. I’m not a lycra-clad gym enthusiast. I’m a bit of a fatty who finds that a swim or a walk with my husband help me manage the stress of adoptive parenting. That’s it. No preaching here.
I have come to my current schedule of a couple of half-hour swims a week and the occasional weekend walk through a concerted effort to prioritise my own self-care. I’m overweight and it is impacting on my health, so I have set myself the target of losing 4 stone. But I’m not just exercising for weight-loss purposes. I have discovered for myself the stress-relieving power of exercise. And those are words I didn’t imagine I’d be writing.
Why it matters
It’s widely recognised that exercise reduces stress. Getting your heart rate up releases endorphins, also called ‘happy hormones’, helping to lift your mood. In ‘The Total Destress Plan’, Beth MacEoin says:
‘When we exercise rhythmically and aerobically for a sustained period, naturally occurring, feelgood chemicals are secreted into the bloodstream. They are called endorphins. It is widely believed that these endorphins are responsible for the sense of elation that is known to follow a stint of aerobic walking, swimming or cycling. Endorphins are believed to be naturally occurring antidepressants with a calming, sedative effect.’
She also discusses the long-term benefits of exercise in counteracting stress:
‘Enjoyable, regular exercise is a strong ally in any struggle for effective stress-busting – for two very different reasons. Firstly, vigorous, rhythmic physical movement gives our bodies a chance to ‘burn off’ excess adrenaline and any additional stress hormones that may be circulating in our systems as part of the fight-or-flight response.
‘Secondly, exercise will help to reduce the tension and stiffness that builds up in muscles, particularly in the muscles of the face, neck and shoulders if our lifestyle is overloaded with negative stress and pressure. If this tension were allowed to become established, the stage would be set for the frequent and regular appearance of stress-related tension headaches and other such debilitating chronic complaints.’
How? When? Where?
For a long time I argued that I was so exhausted and had so little spare time that the idea of using my precious lie-in time to Actually Move About really didn’t appeal at all. It wasn’t until my weight hit an all-time high that I decided things were getting out of hand and ordered a new, enormous swimming costume and dragged myself off to the pool. And you know what? Without children in tow it is a really enjoyable experience. I have time to think. I feel in control of this aspect of my life, even if things on the domestic front are still at the mercy of my children’s behaviour. And the combination of these things feels really quite good.
I fit in my swimming first thing in the morning, leaving the house to be at the pool soon after it opens. Leaving a nice warm bed at 6.15 is not my favourite part of the experience but after a few weeks it is getting easier, especially as the mornings get lighter. I come back home just as the rest of my family are eating breakfast and can carry on with my day with that feeling of having accomplished something for myself.
I use our local council-run sports centre, but have friends who’ve poshed it up and join private gyms. When I lived in London I did this too, but now I’m out in the sticks the council’s one does me fine, even it doesn’t have the free towels and shower gel and all that business. I also haven’t bothered with membership. I know from previous experience that if I pay upfront I waste my money. Some part of me seems to think that paying is half the work, and I slack off. So I’m a pay-as-I-go non-member, with none of the frills of Swimtag or any of that stuff. I just look at the clock and get out after half an hour. Done. The time out from childcare is benefit enough.
The walking does normally feature the children – we’ll try to fit in a walk in a local park or the woods most weekends. They benefit from the opportunity to run about and shriek; me and Pete benefit from them having somewhere other than the house to do that. I have a Fitbit (bought in the sales) which syncs with the Weight Watchers app on my phone, and basically converts exercise into more food. Works for me. So while they are poking mud with sticks and building dens, we get some exercise on the sly, while also having the opportunity for a conversation during daylight hours. Win-win.
I am still a bit baffled by people to whom exercise comes naturally. I’m not sure I’ll ever reach a stage where I voluntarily wear lycra or go to exercise classes for fun rather than watch Bake Off... but what I’m doing is working for me right now and it genuinely is making me a bit less stressed than I would otherwise be. And that has to be good for the whole family.
Also, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend this 90-second video as motivation to find a form of exercise you enjoy. I love it.
What are your thoughts on the importance of exercise to your own self-care? Is it something you’re managing well or struggling to get enough of? Do you have strategies or schedules that work well for you? Please share your comments below and join in the conversation on Twitter with the #selfcareweek hashtag.