National Women’s Health and Fitness Day falls on the last Wednesday in September. i.e. yesterday. This is an American concept but one that the UK seems to have adopted. My Social Media streams were full of positive images of women keeping physically fit. Lots of references to introducing exercise into your life and healthy living particularly diet and super foods. But still a disproportionate lack of advice, images, suggestions to promote Women’s Mental Health.
Mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked. If you focus on physical health, i.e. diet and exercise, there is a positive impact on mental health . The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” Nowhere is the relationship between mental and physical health more evident than in the area of chronic conditions. … People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.
In the past I have prioritised my physical well being over my mental health. I was your typical gym bunny. Always doing the school run in Lycra and headed off to a gym class as soon as I had dropped the little darlings off. The sweat was addictive and the endorphins kept me coming back for more. As with open water swimming, there was a supportive gym and school mum community too. But it was a double edged sword for me. It brings out my competitive nature and I found that it was never ‘enough’. I hadn’t trained hard ‘enough’. I hadn’t gone to ‘enough’ classes. If I didn’t sweat it wasn’t ‘enough’. My focus on my physical wellbeing was beginning to have a detrimental impact on my mental health.
So I changed my approach and looked for balance. I reduced the gym classes and mixed them up with more gentle classes that focused on strength, flexibility and relaxation. Much needed for 45+ year old joints and a frazzled brain. Slowly I weaned myself off the sweat addiction. But the hardest activity to change was my swimming. Open Water swimming has always been part of my life but in recent years I have introduced pool swimming into my routine. Not indoor pools….that would be a step too far! I applied my standard discipline approach to this activity. The number of lengths I swam each time and the time it took to swim distances. It was hard to be a seabird swimmer, free from swim drills in the pool. The lane ropes almost dictate swim drills to me. So I headed for the sea and ditched the pool. Luckily there was a Seabird flock waiting for me to join them.
Over the last 18 months, since the Seabirds were formed, I have swum in the sea all year round and there has been a marked improvement in my mental wellbeing. However, as soon as the water warmed up enough to be safe, I found myself setting swim distance targets all over again. Round the pier, counting the groynes or using the iconic yellow swim buoys to measure the distance of my swim. I even swam solo, which was as much to do with a confidence goal as the need to pursue physical goals. If I didn’t swim front crawl without stopping and get up a sweat (yes you can sweat in the sea) it wasn’t ‘enough’.
Vanity played it’s part too. Ditching the gym and the pool changed my body. And not in a way I liked. It didn’t stop me from stripping off on the shingles and showing half of Brighton my bare bum. But lots of my clothes now don’t fit and even the most resilient woman would struggle in seeing the positive in that. Without knowing it the Seabird Community brought me back to balance. Listening to their pre and post swim conversations I distinctly remember one Seabirds saying at school she wasn’t ‘sporty’ and now she is proud of what her body can do after months of sea swimming. Others have talked about being role models for their children, showing them that there’s life in the old Seabird yet. All of them talk about how happy they feel in the water and for hours sometimes days afterwards. The running theme throughout was always that getting in the sea was ‘enough’. It didn’t matter if you swam out to the buoys, lay in the shore dump or floated in the waves. It was ‘enough’
Health and Fitness is and always will be a very personal choice. Alone or in a group. In a gym class or in the outdoors. Dry land or in the water. If you don’t enjoy it and if it doesn’t make you happy it won’t be ‘enough’ and you won’t keep doing it. And your mental health is as important as your physical health. For me finding a balance is a challenge. But I think I am finally there. A mixture of gym classes as I like routine and encouragement. A daily dog walk on the South Downs as I love solitude and fresh air. A seabird swim free from arbitrary goals that leaves me feeling happy. So the question isn’t really Swim or the Gym. A balance of both is ‘enough’.