Fat & Fit? #NewcastleCan

It’s been a while since I posted a Newcastle Can update. My mental health wobble has been of more focus lately, but this isn’t because I’ve forgotten my physical fitness. 

An explanation for new readers: Newcastle Can is a local project to get my city working together to change the way we live and become healthier. Their website is here, and you my previous posts about it are listed here.


I’ve been signed up to Newcastle Can for four and a half months, and I’m seeing significant progress. My weight loss has stalled, which is disappointing, however my body shape is definitely changing and I’m feeling fitter. I’ve lost 17cm off my waist, my skinny jeans are far less skinny than they were, and I’m going to have to start investing in new clothes soon! Its made me realise that weight isn’t the only way to measure progress. 

While I’ve been off work I’ve been doing significantly less steps each day, rarely hitting my 10,000 daily steps total. I’ve also been eating more unhealthy snacks, because the link between stress and food is one I’ve not been able to completely sever. I’m nowhere near the volume of sweet treats I used to eat, but over my self-imposed one a week limit. I’m not stressing about this, because at the moment getting well is the priority. I’m still doing a lot more cooking from scratch, of healthier meals.

I am proud that despite how unwell I’ve been I’ve kept up my regular additional exercise. I’ve made it to Dancercise every week, and only missed my weekly gym session one time, when I was in bed with migraine. It’s at the gym in particular that I’m really seeing the improvements. A few weeks ago I struggled to do 10 reps on some of the machines, now I’m up to 30. When I first went I struggled to do 3 minutes on the elliptical trainer, now I’m up to 15. 

I had worried that only being able to go once a week to the gym would mean the results were limited, and am happy to have been proved wrong. Would I get better results if I went more often? Probably. But the whole point of the Newcastle Can challenge is making sustainable changes. I usually get a 90-105 minute session, enjoy it, and leave feeling energised. That’s good. I don’t want to force myself to do more than I can manage, getting to a stage where fitting it in becomes something else to stress about. It’s about making the most of the time I have.

So it’s going well and I feel fitter. But I’m still a long way off a healthy weight. So am I healthy? There was a lot in the news last month when scientific research debunked the “Fat but fit myth.” You can read what the Guardian wrote about it here. I found it disheartening. And I also think it over simplifies it. Fit/unfit isn’t a binary thing, getting fitter is a gradual process, not a sudden thing that magically happens when you hit your ideal BMI. I am certain that I’m physically fitter now than I was when I joined Newcastle Can. I’m not yet the healthiest I could be, but I’m making gradual improvements and heading in the right direction. And the important thing is I’m keeping up the changes I’ve made, which will benefit me long term. Yes, I may be more at risk than someone with a healthy BMI, but I’m sure my risk levels are dropping as the weeks of healthy eating and more activity go on. 

I’m interested to hear what’s working for other people. Are you trying to get fitter, and have you found something that works for you? Can someone be fat and fit, or at least fat and fitter? Let me know what you think. 

Dancing without Drinking.

For many years I went out several times a week, dancing and drinking til the early hours. I’m not claiming any especial dancing skill, it was more rocking out than rhythmic, with pogoing and headbanging as required. So not particularly aesthetic, but still movement and exercise. Its no coincidence that I was at my thinnest then. 

But life happened. First work that required getting up early in the morning, then children limiting my ability to get out. But on the rare occasions I did get out I still liked to dance and drink. 

Then I had to give up alcohol. This was due to the various medicines I have to take, not any moral opinion on the evils of drink. But I went from being a typical British occasional binge drinker to tee total. And it was quite a shock to the system. Not least because the majority of my social life revolved around drinking. 

It’s not a lot of fun being the only sober one among a mass of drunken people. Especially if you struggle with anxiety. I found I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself because I felt responsible for everyone’s safety, like I had to be constantly alert because I was the only one who wasn’t drinking. 

I also lost my confidence. Sober I was well aware that I was now a fat, middle aged woman, and who wants to see a fat, middle aged woman leaping about when they’re out for a good night? 

It’s that wierd depression contradiction of feeling worthless and useless, and at the same time self-centered enough to be assuming you’re the most important person there, the one everyone is looking at and judging. 

I became paranoid that people would judge me if I danced, if I relaxed. I was hyper alert whenever I was out. My anxious brain never let up… Why does that person have their phone out? Are they taking my picture? What if they make me into some body-shaming meme? Why are those people laughing? It must be at me. How can I make myself less visible? 

For several years now I’ve gone out less and less often. People have stopped even inviting me to the boozy nights out I used to enjoy. I miss it, but I feel I can’t risk the anxiety such a night brings on. 

However over the last couple of year my partner and I have started going to gigs. We still don’t get out often, but its rekindling a love of live music I thought I’d buried in the 1990s, along with my student ID and dreadlocks.

Last night we went to the gorgeous Wylam Brewery to see the London African Gospel Choir perform Paul Simon’s Graceland. It’s one of my most loved albums and I’d bought tickets on the spur of the moment when they first went on sale, not realising that by the time the gig took place I’d be in the middle of a real battle with my anxiety. I wondered over the last week if I’d be able to go.

Wylam Brewery, a gorgeous venue.

We walked across the town moor to Wylam Brewery, which is now housed in the Palace of Arts in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park rather than in Wylam. Walking rather than driving or getting the bus is a useful way for me to manage my anxiety, the extra time travelling helps me get my head in order. 

I did have some moments of anxiety over the course of the evening, mainly when alone if my partner had gone to the bar or wherever, but I was able to keep it under control. The music was fabulous. And I danced all night, for the first time since giving up alcohol. I shut out worries about how I looked or what people would think and I enjoyed the music and relaxed. I sang at the top of my voice, I cheered and whooped, and I kept on dancing.

Since I started my efforts to get healthier my stamina has definitely improved. We went to see the Levellers a few months ago and I could only dance for the odd song, not all the way through. Dancercise has honed my rhythm and taught me new moves, not that I was doing a full on lindy hop or Charleston!

I don’t know why I was able to relax last night when it’s been so difficult other times. I dont know what let me ignore my anxious brain. My mood at the moment is still zigzagging all over the place, so it was probably equally likely that I didn’t make it at all. But I’m determined to make the most of the up moments when I have them.

It was a wonderful night. 

Admitting I’m wrong. #NewcastleCan

So far it seems my journey to becoming physically healthier and losing weight has featured more u-turns than government politics. 

I was adamant I didn’t want to have to write down everything I eat, then I realised without doing that I was letting too many snacks sneak through. I monitored my eating for several weeks, until I had a good idea of what calories the things I eat most often contain. I’m not recording everything I eat now, but I am checking calories when I eat something new and keeping a checklist of any unhealthy snacks, aiming to just have one a week. 

I was certain that exercise classes weren’t for me, then I went to a NewcastleCan Dancercise taster session and ended up signing up for a weekly class. Despite my lack of coordination, my fear of being seen exercising in public, and the many, many years since I last did any aerobic exercise I’m enjoying it. Each week I see an improvement in what I can do. 

As recently as the beginning of April I was absolutely sure that gyms weren’t for me, that I could get enough exercise by increasing the impact of my regular walks. The NewcastleCan open day got me through the gym doors, which made me realise how much of my body didn’t get a work out through walking. So the latest u-turn is that I’ve joined a gym! I’m working mostly on cardio and including some resistance. I’ve found my legs are strong, but my shoulders and arms are a long way behind. I can only get to the gym once a week, but even that is helping, every week I can do a little bit more than the week before. 

Why so many u-turns? Over years of inactivity I’d built up a web of logical excuses for not exercising or losing weight. I’m too busy; my tablets increase my appetite; exercising in public isn’t for me etc. I’ve wanted to get healthier, I’ve known what I needed to do to make it happen, but I’ve kept making these excuses many of which are just covering up more complicated reasons for my inertia. I find change to my routine challenging; new places make me anxious; I’m scared I’ll be the only middle aged fat woman in a room full of young, lean, healthy types etc. 

I needed support to get out of that rut. I needed to be shown I could do it. I was lucky that the NewcastleCan project started up when I needed it and is giving me the opportunity to challenge all those excuses I’d made. Without the open day I’d never have tried an exercise class or gone to a gym. 

The exercise added to the healthier eating is working. My body shape is gradually changing, to the extent people are noticing now, and I may have to go clothes shopping soon as many things are too big for me now. My weight loss has slowed, but I’m less worried about that than I would have been earlier as I feel healthier, I know I’m improving even in the weeks when the scales don’t budge. And the more I do the better I feel. 

It’s not easy to admit I’m wrong, to challenge the excuses I’ve believed for so long. But each time I do, and it works, it makes it easier to challenge the next excuse, and keep on moving in the right direction.

Image from http://www.newcastlecan.com

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More about my u-turns.

  • I wrote about deciding to keep a food diary here
  • My post from 5 April, declaring gyms weren’t for me, is here
  • My review of the activity day which included the gym and exercise class taster sessions here.

15,000 steps and a slice of cake before lunchtime. #NewcastleCan

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Ford Prefect*

Last night I set my alarm for 8am, which is not usual. For me Saturdays are a time to catch up on the limited sleep I get through the week. 

My partner is the sort of person who can say “Goodnight”, roll over and be snoring within 10 seconds. Sleep doesn’t come that easily to me. I toss and turn, my brain spiralling through repeated anxieties, until finally I fall asleep. I usually get about 5 hours on a weeknight, and that’s since an increase in medication made me sleep noticeably heavier. 

I know this pattern of little sleep on weeknights and long lie ins at the weekends isn’t healthy. I know lack of sleep can contribute to poor mental health. In my case I’m not sure whether the poor mental health causes the problem sleeping or vice versa. 

Anyway, none of that lounging in bed til lunchtime for me today. It turned out my 8am alarm was optimistic, as the dogs decided at 7.30 that they needed to go outside urgently. When my alarm went off I was already eating breakfast and drinking tea.

The reason for the uncharacteristic early rising is that, following last weekend’s Newcastle Can taster sessions, I have signed up for a Dancercise class. And because I had a poor week in exercise and healthy eating terms I’d decided to challenge myself even further, by walking there and back. 

It’s not a particularly exciting walk, mostly through housing estates except for a brief spell across the Town Moor, but its one I’d done before and was confident I could manage on top of an hours dancercising. My map app said it would take 55 minutes, but the app creators have a very poor understanding of how fast a fat lass can walk when she puts her mind to it, so I allowed 45. 

I threw in a couple of short bursts of jogging and made it there in 40 minutes. I’m fairly sure jogging isn’t for me, it takes all my concentration and I can’t keep it up for any length of time, but I persevere because I know it uses different muscles to walking and I reckon every little helps. (Other inspirational supermarket slogans are available!)

The class was small and friendly, and as it was the first we were all newbies together. There was shimmying, hip swinging, bhangra, rock, charleston, lindy hop and even jazz hands. Something for everyone. I struggled to get my arms and legs doing different moves at the same time, but it didn’t matter because I kept moving.

I think part of why I enjoy the Dancercise is that it doesn’t come naturally. While my peers were learning to move to music I was listening to Metallica and Megadeth, neither noted for their dance moves. So it takes all my concentration. And that means those spiralling thoughts, the worries and anxieties that have dragged my mood down this week, have to stop. There’s no room for them when all my concentration is on getting my body to move to the music.

It didn’t feel like an hour. It didn’t feel like a class either. It felt like relaxing and having fun, while at the same time moving and exercising.

Afterwards some of us went for a cuppa and a cake, because, as I’m learning, getting healthy isn’t about never having treats. Its about adding to what you already do, little changes which build and grow. You need to enjoy it, not feel its a chore you’re obliged to undertake.

I walked back, with occasional jogging, and realised I didn’t feel as anxious as I had earlier. On the walk there my brain was doing its anxious, spiralling, hamster-in-a-wheel thing which I’ve struggled to control this week. On the way back I was noticing the sunshine, thinking about exercise and movement, feeling energised. That hour of concentrating on movement had stopped the spiralling. It’s an unexpected way in which improving my physical health can improve my mental health, just giving me a break from my bullying brain.

Before I signed up to NewcastleCan I’d have laughed if you suggested I join an exercise class. I’d have given you loads of reasons why it wasn’t for me, why I didn’t have time, why the very idea was absurd. If youd said I’d be up early, and have done 15,000 steps by lunchtime, I’d have laughed too. And if you’d said I could get healthy and still eat cake I just wouldn’t have believed you!

I’m almost 3 months into my journey of getting healthier, body and mind, and I know now I’d have been wrong back then. I wonder which of my other assumptions about myself will be challenged along the way? 

* In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. But you knew that, right? 

Wednesday walk. #NewcastleCan

My son and I have a deal. If I walk at least 10,000 steps after dropping him off at youth club I can have a piece of cake before I pick him up. 

I’m trying to make my walks more strenuous. I don’t have a lot more time I could give to walking each week, so to try and get fitter I’m trying to make the walking I do have more impact. I suppose I could join a gym, and I know many people who have done so and love it, but for the moment I’m too nervous, too used to exercising alone.

So, how to add impact to my stepping?

I’m doing it with stairs and hills. I go along the Quayside, up one flight and down the next. I have a little circuit that I challenge myself with. It’s a flight of approximately 80 steps up, a little hill, a flight of 30 or so steps down, then along the flat to get my breath back before I go again. I’m up to four loops now, and this week for the first time I managed to run up the entire first flight. Definite improvement. By the fourth circuit my legs feel like jelly and I’m dependent on the handrails to reach the top. Maybe next week I’ll manage five times round.

Made it!
Would I get this view at a gym?
 
I’ve started throwing a little jogging into my walk. Very little, with long walks in between, and only on the flat, but it’s progress. I’m also still nervous about being seen exercising in public. I walk past the pubs.
Exposed by low tide.

The Gateshead side of the river has a fantastic walk. I do the hilly side heading out and then back along the flat of the riverside. There are hidden artworks and more daffodils than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

Is this enough to count as a host of golden daffodils?

As I head back towards town I hear, over the sound of traffic, river and birdsong, the unmistakable roar of a St James’ Park home crowd. Back over to the Newcastle side and I have so many stairs to choose from, Castle Stairs, Long Stairs, Dog Leap Stairs. I can’t run up them by now but I keep going.

I’ve done over 14,000 steps since I dropped my son off. Time for my reward! 

Worth every step!

Organised Exercise

After enjoying taking part in a recent #ThisGirlCan 5k I felt inspired to do more, so today my partner and I joined the “Hidden Gems” 7 mile hike at Gibside. After years only exercising behind closed doors, alone, this makes two organised public exercise events in under a month! That feels like progress.

I was slightly nervous about attending something advertised as a hike. Walking is one thing, hiking seemed a whole new level of exertion I might not be capable of. But I know Gibside quite well, and have been trying its hills out recently to make my walks more challenging, so I was confident I could make it to the top of any of them, although perhaps not quickly!

Column of Liberty pictured from under the old oak tree.

I needn’t have worried. The pace was steady but not too brisk and the regular pauses to hear about the history and landscape we were passing through were ample opportunity to catch my breath. I could have done it quicker if I’d been pushing myself, but I’d have missed a lot if I did. 

Our guide, David, clearly knew and loved Gibside. He shared stories, explained the historical evidence, and pointed out the geographical clues to the lands use over the years. The walk itself was a tour of the boundaries of the property, concentrating on carriageways and coal mines rather than the grand hall, chapel and other buildings. David brought to life the 1856 Ordinance Survey map we were following. It was fascinating how much of it was unchanged.

His real skill though was in making me look at a familiar landscape anew, spotting features I’d never noticed before and interpreting them so the land was telling its own history. Hidden among the trees we saw evidence of bell and drift mines, and the man made routes to them. In the trees above one of the main routes, which I’ve walked many times, a carved bat. And at the stables, which I’ve visited almost every time I’ve been to Gibside, he pointed out such an obvious quirk about the front and sides of the building I was amazed I’d never spotted it before. 

I should look up more often!

Most of the paths we followed I had been along before, however today I looked at them differently. I went along to exercise my body and it turned out I was getting a work out for my brain too. I’ll definitely be looking out for more history walks. 

These boots were made for walking #NewcastleCan

In 2014, hoping to get healthier, my partner and I signed up to September for Scope. This was the first time I’d really heard of the 10,000 steps a day target. It was a massive challenge, my legs ached, I struggled to find the time to fit such a huge number of steps in. 

Stepping out.

I decided to try to keep it going after the month, and have done so fairly consistently right up to now. The physical change in me has been considerable. My walking pace has sped up considerably. I no longer have to pause to catch my breath on hills. I can run up a flight of stairs. My legs no longer ache the day after walking 10,000 steps, in fact I routinely get around 12,000 a day and more on the days I push myself. What used to feel like a long way now feels like an average walk. Where I used to drive everywhere I now think nothing of walking if my destination is a half hour or so away.

There have been other benefits. I’ve explored my community and city and found fascinating places, routes, alleys, patches of nature, public art, staircases and so on that I didn’t know existed. When I can I walk in more rural settings, where I feel even more connected to nature. I’ve never learned to read maps, but am lucky enough that many public footpaths nearby are well signposted. I said in an earlier post that walking hard challenges me physically and soothes me mentally, and this sums up for me why I’ve been able to keep going with this. 

Exploring and making friends.

The times I haven’t kept it up have been when I’ve been unwell, either physically or mentally. And I need to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for missing my step target when I’m unwell. I wouldn’t expect myself to walk 10,000 steps with a migraine or stomach bug, so why do I think I should do it when my depression and anxiety is at its worst? I was pleased to read this article which reflects my feels about this more eloquently than I could.

I saw a physiotherapist recently. She told me increased walking is one of the most sustainable increases in exercise you can do. While people drop out of gym sessions, or can’t always get to the swimming pool etc, people who walk more are likely to keep walking. To anyone struggling to get more active I’d recommend giving it a go. 

A few tips to get started:

  • Many smartphones have built in pedometers which can give you a good idea of how many steps you’re already doing.
  • Start small. If you’re only doing 3,000 steps a day an increase to 5,000 will have significant benefits, you don’t need leap straight to 10,000.
  • Make sure you have supportive comfortable shoes. Definitely don’t try to walk 10,000 steps in brand new Dr Marten’s- I did once, never again!
  • Take the stairs not the lift. When I first started I needed to stop for a breather halfway up the stairs to my son’s youth club. Now I can run up them!
  • Walk short journeys, and build walking time into your planning.
  • If you sit down all day at work go for a walk in your breaks.
  • Walk with other people. Whether for companionship or competitiveness will depend on you, but I find it does make a difference when you’re not doing it alone!

This may all seem obvious, often the hardest thing is getting started. But it does make a difference. Good luck!