There is no pain quite like the sensation of a sweaty wooden beam under the ball of one’s foot, although rope burn is, in a different way, equally awful. Less physical but just as grim is the existential horror you experience as you queue up to run at a horse you’re incapable of mounting. Or when you’re stood in the cold and it’s raining, which is handy because it means that no-one has noticed that you’re crying because both captains refuse to pick you for their hockey team. You’re not just crying because you’re unpopular (although that doesn’t help), but because you know you’re shit, you’re useless, you will never be good at this thing that no-one else seems to struggle with, and some people actively enjoy. It’s alienating. Then there are the smells, the clammy chafing, the fact that your deodorant is so ineffective that you’ve asked your Mum to start buying you Sure for Men, and that’s just from basic walking around, when your classmates can play netball for four hours and seem fine with a quick squirt of Impulse Vanilla Kisses.
A week ago, Lena Dunham posted a ‘workout selfie’ with the comment, ‘It has helped my anxiety in ways I never dreamed possible. It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain.’ And her wise words brought home to me just how much my own attitude to fitness has changed.
I struggle with anxiety. When it’s bad, I struggle to open my laptop, and there are hundreds of days where I feel incapable of exercising because I am too spooked to put on a sports bra, but I know that if I can just get out of my front door and inside the gym, I will feel a bit better, because when I have to focus on getting on the treadmill and putting one foot in front of the other, I won’t have the mental energy to listen to a head full of screaming, angry ghosts.
I'm certainly not alone. Mental health has become a key battleground in this election – the rise of mental health issues in young people is well documented (take today’s news that more school-age girls than ever are suffering from emotional problems), and no-one’s denying that our mental health services are in a parlous state. Nick Clegg launched his election campaign by pledging to spend an extra £2 billion on mental health services, and the Green Party have even promised to give higher priority to the physical healthcare of those with mental health issues – which means the long-established link between mental health and physical activity is now being dangled in front of us as potential policy.
And that’s great news, because where exercise used to be the cause of my anxiety, I’ve learnt that I can use it to combat it. It took me a long time to make the switch and figure out how to explore my body’s capabilities instead of focusing on its limitations. I used to think that a fortunate few were born sporty, and I was destined to miss buses and get breathless when I climbed the stairs.
The thought of sports, games, gym and any enforced physical activity used to make me nervous and nauseous. I can still remember the heavy, swingy doors of the school changing room, and the sense of dread and scent of stale sweat they evoked when pushed. The idea that I might choose to do any exercise as an adult, or enjoy it – well, no. When I was exercising obsessively as an anorexic teen, it was as a brutal and effective punishment. Being fat was a reason to force myself to do the thing I hated most in the world, and I was going to stop as soon as I got ‘thin’.
Over the years I made friends with sporty lovelies who extolled the health benefits of moving about a bit. I exercised resentfully – the self loathing eased, but I still tagged it as a necessary evil, like STI checks and buying holiday insurance. Then, thanks to Groupon, I had a go at Bikram yoga. I liked the idea of it much more than the actual yoga. You get to feel like a gloriously self important twat when you’re regularly spending seven quid on a carton of coconut water, and you’re taking two beach towels with you everywhere you go. The element of ritual and the posiness of the practitioners meant it felt completely removed from the remembered horror of PE, even though it was the first time since school that I had been in a room and thought, ‘This smells of feet.’ Bikram was hard and horrible, but I went every day for ten days and I could feel my body getting stronger, my balance getting better, my hands and legs managing to do a posture they hadn’t been capable of three days ago. Then an ill-timed coffee and some extreme dehydration meant that I rolled out of one class high. ‘Calm down, it’s endorphins. You get them when you exercise properly,’ explained my smug housemates as I smiled beatifically at my own hands.
Bikram is great if you don’t need to work and someone else does your laundry, but I ran out of Groupons and fell off the wagon. But it was my introduction to the idea that exercise isn’t about punishment, misery and humiliation. It can make you feel amazing. Not in an ‘I am so toned and hot, I feel amazing’ way, but a genuine, lost in the moment, hands in the air, giddy, addictive thrill sense.
Back to me, on one of those bad days, on the treadmill. For the first five minutes, I’ll be thinking, ‘I’m shit, I’m useless, I will never be good at this thing,’ and then sweat warms my skin like sunshine on sea water, and I turn the bass up on whatever terrible Spotify playlist I’m listening to, and jack up the incline and think, ‘You’re doing it! You’re doing it! You’re here!’ And I look over at the guy next to me, the one with biceps shaped like Tellytubby hills whose feet never seem to touch the treadmill, who runs so fast that he will almost certainly take off one day and fly to the next postcode by accident, and think, ‘We’re both doing our best. And it feels good.’
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Illustration by Assa Ariyoshi
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.
Sign up to Grazia’s mental health campaign to make mental health first aiders compulsory in all workplaces
This week, we went to Downing Street to deliver our petition to Theresa May, calling for mental health first aiders to be made compulsory in the workplace. Joining us were supporters of our Where’s Your Head At? campaign, including writer Bryony Gordon, Labour MP Luciana Berger and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley. The petition has more than 200,000 signatures and support from celebrities and big businesses. We know how important talking about mental health at work is, but we need your help to get the law changed. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, you can still do it online. And don’t forget to email or tweet your local MP and tell them why this law change is so important to you.
For details, visit wheresyourheadat.org
World Mental Health Day is on 10 October. Visit mind.org.uk for information