6 weeks ago I hadn’t run further than the bus stop at the end of the street in years. Today I completed the Great North 5K, running all the way, in 33.15. In doing so I realised how many lies I’d been telling myself and how many excuses I’d been making to justify my inactivity. Maybe you recognise some of these, perhaps you believe them of yourself?
1. I’m too fat to run.
Yes, I’m fat. Not nearly as fat as I was, but still officially obese. But there’s no physical reason I can’t run. I don’t have arthritis, or asthma, or any other physical problem I could exacerbate by running. In fact my GP has been encouraging me to exercise more and lose weight for years.
Of course if you do have a medical condition you should check with your doctor before starting any new exercise regime. But just being fat isn’t a good enough reason.
2. My body doesn’t move that way. AKA I can walk faster than I can run.
I’ve believed this for years. I remember at school, several decades ago, being laughed at for my slow, clumsy running. But its not true that I can walk faster than I can run, no matter how often I’ve said it. What is true is that walking is a damn sight easier than running, especially when you’re not used to running. It feels quicker because its taking less concentration and effort. But the more I run the more my body gets used to moving like that, and the more surprised and delighted I am at what my fat, middle aged body can accomplish.
3. I’m too old to start running now.
I’m in my mid-40s and was quite sure I’d now built the habits I needed for life. Until the beginning of this year I’d done little exercise other than dog walking for decades. When I signed up for Newcastle Can in January I started exercising more, but was still adamant I wouldn’t be joining a gym or running. Now I’ve done both, and I’m having a blast. I started doing Park runs, and there I see people of all ages and abilities.
Imagine a new piece of technology was released and I refused to try it because I was too old to learn something new. You’d laugh at me. To be fair my daughter does often laugh at my ineptitude with modern gadgets, and its true I’ll never pick them up as effortlessly as she does. But I’m trying and I’m learning at my own pace. Same with running. I’m not trying to be the next Paula Radcliffe, I imagine my running will never be as effortless as someone who’s been doing it consistently all their life, but so what? I’m doing it to get healthy and I’m improving at my own pace. And I’ve been using my body a lot longer than I’ve been grappling with technology, so I’m bound to pick it up, right?!
If I hadn’t started now what was the alternative? Staying on the sofa gaining weight and getting ill. I spent too long doing that, I’m glad I started moving now.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. Your body can do amazing things. Try it and see.
4. No one wants to see a fat woman running. AKA I’ll get laughed at.
Society fat-shames women, but not half as much as we do to ourselves. Going out in public in leggings was a massive hurdle for me. I’m well aware how I look. Add how sweaty I get when running and the bright puce my face goes and it’s not an attractive sight. But I’m doing this for me, not for anyone else. What I look like shouldn’t matter.
The first few times I ran in public I would slow to a walk rather than overtake anyone, because then they’d look at me. I kept my eyes down, avoiding eye contact with anyone coming in the other direction. And yet no one has laughed at me, not to my knowledge. People have smiled and been supportive. Not just other runners, but when I’ve run past ordinary members of the public.
But I keep my headphones in when I’m running past groups of teenagers, just in case.
I’ve realised people are not as focused on my appearance as I think they are. There seems to be some kind of glamour at work. I look in the mirror and see a fat, sweaty, unattractive woman, whereas the people I run past see a woman working hard to improve herself. The best part of this magic is the more I run the more I see what they see.
5. I can’t do this. AKA OMG I’m going to die.
I’m not going to say running is easy. It’s not. It’s even harder when you’re not in great shape to begin with. I’d been gradually increasing my activity for months before I started running, and I still felt like the effort was going to kill me for the first few weeks. After years of walking speed my body protested violently to the unaccustomed pressure. My subconscious assumed that as I was running there must be danger, and I struggled to control my breathing and pace.
The solution is to build gradually. I started by counting lampposts. I ran to the next lamppost, then walked until my lungs had calmed down, then ran again. By week three I’d moved to counting bus stops instead of lampposts. By the end of week four I was counting kilometres.
There’s a point in each run, and it gets earlier and earlier as I keep running, when it feels like my body goes “Oh that’s what we’re doing” and gets into a rhythm. It stops feeling like fight or flight and starts feeling like I can keep this going. For me music helps me find that point. The beat helps me keep my breathing and legs steady. Without it I just keep speeding up til I have to stop.
Yes it’s hard, yes my legs are tired and my lungs are gasping for breath. But I CAN do it.
6. I’m genetically predisposed to be obese.
When I was little my Gran once told me that I would be fat when I was older, because my mum was fat, and she was fat, and all the women in our family have been fat. I was furious with her. But when my weight started creeping up I realised she was right. After all science has identified genes that cause some people to gain weight more than others.
But really that’s just an excuse. Behaviour has been shown to be as important as genetics in obesity studies. If I’m being inactive and eating unhealthily I’ll get fat even if I have good genes. Yes, maybe its a bit harder for me to lose weight that someone from a family with different genes, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.
7. My depression and anxiety won’t let me do this.
I’m not going to claim that my mental health problems are lies or excuses. When my mental health is bad it can be as debilitating as a physical ailment. Just getting to the sofa can be a challenge, let alone out the door. There will be days when my depression and anxiety won’t let me do this.
But over the past 6 weeks I’ve done things I never thought I could. I’ve run 5K several times, I’ve gone from nothing to making regular running a habit, I’ve run in public, I’ve walked through the busy city centre in my leggings more than once, I’ve been interviewed on camera about the positive things Newcastle Can has done for me… I’ve even voluntarily posted photos of me looking fat and sweaty on the internet for the first time!
There will be days when my depression and anxiety won’t let me do this, but on those days I can remember all these things I’ve done, and tell myself “my depression and anxiety won’t let me do this today, but I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again another day.”
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I was pleased today to get the chance to meet Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who’s spearheaded the Newcastle Can project. It was great to tell him what a difference it’s made to me. It was also great to meet other Newcastle Can runners, people like myself who have fallen out of exercising over the years, whether through inertia or injury, and are now part of a community working to get more healthy. There was so much support, smiles and kind words as we ran in our orange T-shirts. Other runners, who hadn’t heard about Newcastle Can before today, were interested and supportive. It was a great atmosphere, and I’m so glad I accepted the challenge. I’m still buzzing from the fact that I did it.
If I can get from zero to 5K in six weeks what will I do next?