The predicted weather was cold, with possible snow and hail. Even so, we set off, determined to make the most of the chance to meet up outside and walk with others, following the ‘Rule of Six’.
Although it did turn out to be cold, there was no sign of snow or hail. We walked through glorious countryside in bright sunshine and completed an 8-mile circuit. Not bad considering the effects of ‘lockdown winter’ with gyms closed and the impetus to exercise at home starting to dwindle. We needed those hills, that fresh air, that blast to the senses.
With 38 years between the youngest of the group, at 27, and me, at 65, our walking speeds were variable. Our younger friends waited patiently at regular intervals for us to catch up – me and my partner plodding along at a steady 2 miles an hour. We’re not going to break any records but we’re not aiming to. What we do want to do, however, is maintain reasonable levels of fitness as we progress through our sixties and beyond.
We’ve both struggled with long-term depression but also both never given up on pushing ourselves – and now, sometimes, each other – to keep making that effort – massive though it is – to maintain an exercise regime, in one form or another.
For me it’s tended to be a bit ad hoc – I find routine difficult – although for years I did cycle to work regularly. It wasn’t a long distance but there was quite a lot of uphill on the way back. I often cursed at the end of the day when I wished – how I wished – that I’d driven there in the car. But I’m sure it’s helped me a lot and I’m glad of it now. Glad to have kept going, pushing those pedals.
Every so often I used to try jogging. I found it hard to psyche myself up, sometimes got into a bit of a ‘stride’, and even completed a 10K run once. Jogging wasn’t for me though, long term. My knees complained and I had to call it a day on that one.
There were times in my life when I simply set off from home and walked until my heels bled. Not recommended but at least it got me out and active.
In later years I did volunteering involving hard labour with a sledge hammer (and called it a holiday!). For that, I set myself training targets, carrying a back-pack loaded up to 50lb in weight with books, tins of beans and bags of flour. A good friend used to come with me on some of these training walks, to make sure that I didn’t fall backwards off the hillside – with that load I would never have stopped until I landed at the bottom!
Now, I enjoy our leisure walks – sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of us. We’re planning to do Helvellyn later this year. Must get into training again soon.
We all know this and are likely to have had direct experience of these benefits.
Why, then, can it still be so difficult to find the motivation to exercise?
It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with all my life, experiencing barriers associated with body image when I was younger. I knew swimming was good exercise but would only ever go to a swimming pool or wear a swimsuit on a beach if I’d starved myself to be thin enough to feel able to do that. And even then, I felt morbidly self-conscious about how I looked. It took a long time and a lot of working through masses amount of personal ‘stuff’ before I could stop worrying and start enjoying swimming. My partner and I even go wild swimming now, and it feels wonderful.
I tried jogging, but always found it so hard to build myself up to a regular routine. Lacking in willpower and discipline some people might say. Struggling with severe depression, anxiety and low self-esteem was the real reason. I’ve continued to struggle ever since, but have also never given up. Now 65, I’ve been doing on-line exercise classes, including yoga and pilates during lockdown. Last summer we did some cycling around our local lanes. We still both find that it’s an effort to go out, sometimes, but give each other a push and/or moral support when we need it. Whatever it takes.
What’s the alternative? An inactive old age with all the complications that brings?
I’ve always found it difficult to go to a gym or to exercise classes after work. Just getting through a day involved such a major effort for me. So I looked for ways to combine exercise into my daily routine. Cycling to work meant that I often turned up looking like a drowned rat, but it did help.
Even so, I continued to struggle with depression, and continued to find it hard to motivate myself to exercise enough to help it lift on anything more than a temporary basis. I felt like the only way I could sustain the ‘lift’ would be to train as if I was an Olympic athlete. I have neither the physique nor the talent to be anything remotely akin to athletic and, like most people, have had to commit a significant amount of my time to earning a living and keeping up with the usual day to day domestic activities.
There were times as well when I felt that the more I exercised, the deeper my depression went, after the initial ‘buzz’ fell away.
I continued to have to do a lot of work to try and shift it, with exercise being one of a number of tools and techniques that I’ve tried and tested over the years. It has been, and continues to be, a lifetime endeavour. I think that this is in part because of the way emotions are stored in the body, a matter which has been increasingly recognised and written about including the following article by Sean Grover (2018):
For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. Certainly, not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to stress, recurring patterns emerged.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Repression
Fear is the driving force behind repression, and is frequently rooted in your past. Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression fuels psychosomatic symptoms and self-destructive patterns.
In his article in Psychology Today, Sean Grover goes on to identify the ‘Top 10 Tension Areas for Unwanted Feelings’ as:
1.Lower Back: Anger 2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear 3. Heart & Chest: Hurt 4. Headache: Loss of control 5. Neck/Shoulder Tension: Burdens 6. Fatigue: Resentments 7. Numbness: Trauma 8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety 9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression 10. Insomnia: Loss of self
I find this interesting and helpful, relating these areas to recent and past experiences.
I did a lot of work on repressed anger at one point, including going to a workshop where I was encouraged to take a lot of it out on a punch bag. The physicality of the release at the time was phenomenal (although I did go into a kind of ‘toxic shock’ afterwards, so I would not recommend anyone trying this approach without a very strong support network around them).
Some years later, experiencing stress at work, I searched out volunteering opportunities, finding an outlet by doing trail maintenance work where I could break big rocks into smaller rocks to make hardcore with a sledgehammer. I came back refreshed and invigorated. Although the effects did wear off after a while, I have so far – touch wood – not suffered from lower back problems.
Fatigue and resentments strike a chord with me – I’m so good at hanging on to them, no wonder I feel tired all the time!
So, while I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to this point, and to feel largely positive about the position I’m in, there’s still a lot to do.
It’s often the enormity – or perceived enormity of the challenge – that puts us off dealing with it, which leads to repression, which leads to depression….
There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions, especially when difficulties are deep-rooted. I just keep reminding myself that it’s all about the next step. And the one after that. And the one after that. It does get easier. Miraculously – it feels to me – my steps feel a lot lighter, at the age I’m at now, than they did when I was young, all those years ago! Something must be working, somehow. Barriers can be overcome. It’s not easy, but it’s worth working at it, bit by bit.