Fitness and mental health…it really does help.
At least it has for me.
Now let me start with a disclaimer, I am not a fitness expert – far from it! I’m still at the beginning of my fitness journey and learning as I go. I’m also not about to preach about health and fitness and tell you that you should be focusing on it, because honestly, I didn’t for many years.
I was that person that hated exercise. I was unfit and apart from walking I did little to no physical activity. The thought of ever going into a gym was a complete nightmare to me and if you had told me then, that I would be writing this now then I would probably have laughed. Not only did I not enjoy exercise, but I found it physically challenging. Those of you with HS will know the pain of the abscesses all too well, but for anyone reading this outside of the HS community, then just know this, movement hurts. A LOT. Many people with HS are not even able to walk without incredible discomfort and there have been moments that I’ve been in agony just walking from my desk in work to the kitchen just down the corridor. (This isn’t a cry for sympathy by the way I just wanted to set the picture on how debilitating and painful this condition can be).
Everything changed for me in 2020. I’ve touched on this in previous articles but 2020 was the year where I completely transformed my lifestyle, for the better. Last March I had an abscess surgically removed. An abscess which had consumed my life for the best part of 2 years. After that, everything changed. The pandemic hit, lockdown happened and suddenly I found myself working from home and trying to figure out what I could do to manage anxiety. I no longer had excruciating pain from that abscess and I now had all this extra time. Before the pandemic, I had started the couchto5k running programme (highly recommend if you’d like to get into running) I found it so hard at first. It was painful and only reminded me of just how unfit I was. But I used this extra time to push myself to complete it. I did it, I ran 5k. I ran 5k and didn’t pass out from pain or exhaustion. I completed it and it made me feel great. I’m not sure if it was endorphins or the fear of anxiety and depression taking a hold of me once again, but whatever it was something spurred me on to explore new areas of fitness.
In May 2020, I joined an online coaching programme (Instagram: mjfitnesscardiff) I worked with the coach to determine my goals and was provided a tailored programme of home workouts. I didn’t know what to expect at first and I was skeptical of ever enjoying doing exercise at home. I mean, jumping around getting sweaty in the same place I enjoy watching Netflix just didn’t sit quite right with me. Within a few weeks I found myself enjoying it more and more every day. I could feel myself improving and the workouts started to become…dare I say, enjoyable?! I found an outlet for my anxiety and negative feelings. That short 30–40-minute workout would completely elevate my mood for the rest of the day. My mind was clear and I genuinely felt amazing. I continued my running during this time too and before I knew it, I was signing up to a charity fundraiser to run 50 miles throughout September. 50 miles on top of walking, hiking and my home workouts. I couldn’t believe that me - Bethan, the girl who HATED exercise was now becoming one of those people that really loved it.
I spent 7 months doing online coaching before pushing myself into my next challenge. The challenge of joining a gym. I had never stepped foot in a gym and honestly, the thought of it made me feel sick with nerves. Even though my fitness had improved, I was still terrified. I thought to myself, how could I walk into a place filled with people who were experts in exercise and try to fit in? What if I couldn’t manage the workouts? What if I made an absolute idiot out of myself? You know, all the regular thoughts that you have when coping with anxiety. (My social anxiety was massively impacted by spending so much time at home due to the lockdowns, so that really didn’t help) I found a gym local to where I live that appeared to have a real feeling of community and support. I checked them on social media at first (Instagram: crossfit470merthyr) I could see that the posts they shared often talked about the importance of mental health and this made me feel at ease right away. I was missing people so I threw caution to the wind and booked in an intro. When I arrived, the music was really loud and I could see incredible people (athletes I’d say ha) lifting huge weights and swinging themselves around bars. The weird part? I didn’t feel intimidated. This situation would have normally made me feel sick with anxiety, but it didn’t. I looked around and thought… I can do this. I want to do this. So, in November I completed my beginners CrossFit course and I even managed to get a couple of classes in before Wales went into another lockdown before Christmas. Our coaches are sending us workouts to do from home for now and honestly, I am so grateful for that. I have so much to learn and there is so much I still can’t do, but I know I’ll get there. Being a part of a community of people that support and encourage everyone to do their best, is really incredible!
People told me for years that exercise would help with my anxiety and depression struggles but at the time, I didn’t want to hear it. Did I believe it? I’m not sure. I’m not saying that it’s the answer to everything. For me, it was medication that helped me out of a dark place but now I’d say that exercise is helping me to not go back there. I know this message is longer than usual, but I guess I wanted to share my experiences, with the hope of helping others. You don’t have to aim high and push yourself to the extreme. It doesn’t need to be running, or high intensity cardio. You don’t need to lift weights or become an elite level gymnast. Start by going for a walk. Do some desk or sofa yoga and maybe dance around the kitchen whilst you cook dinner. All movement is good movement and honestly, moving is the best thing I’ve done for my mental health.
I know that one day my HS could mean that I can’t move in the same way. I know that I will have flares which cause me pain, even to walk. I know that it’s a possibility that one day, my HS could get so bad that I can’t do any of it. But not right now. Right now, I have a healthy body and mind and I will do everything I can to keep it that way. I’ve just signed up to run a half marathon in October (depending on the COVID restrictions). It seems like such a beast of a challenge to me, but I will certainly give it my best shot. That’s all we can do right?
I hope everyone is doing ok and if you’re not, please reach out to someone.
Until next time…