How our histories interweave

Tag Archives: exercise

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I’ve blogged before about my complicated relationship with exercise. Well, actually, it’s not all that complicated – I don’t enjoy exercise, but I do it because of my weight issues, plus the general benefits it has on my health. I’ve tried so many different forms of exercise, including some of the more faddier ones like Zumba and Bokwa, neither of which I was very impressed with. But, finally, I think I might have found one I actually enjoy.

As part of my Ladies’ Circle groups’ calendar of activities for this year, we were supposed to be doing a pole dancing class, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a local class. One of my friends suggested we try anti-gravity fitness instead, so I booked us in. I enjoyed it so much I booked myself a fairly pricey four-week course (four one-hour sessions), promising myself that if I liked it, I would do a four-week course from time-to-time to break up the monotony of going to the gym. I’m already mulling over booking myself another course for as soon as this one finishes.

Anti-gravity fitness was devised by Christopher Harrison, who’s some big cheese in the Cirque de Soleil. The exercise is a combination of yoga, pilates and acrobatics, all performed using the Harrison Hammock®. Of course there had to be a trademark somewhere in this – it’s a money-making fitness craze, after all. You can actually buy one to install at home, which would be awesome, but I’m scared it would pull my whole house down.

Having a knee injury and a birth defect in my lower spine, I tend to be quite cautious about what my body can do. I’m terrified of injuring my knee further, or throwing my back out, something which can be done by the smallest of gestures (once, by a sneeze) and which leaves me in agony for days. But the anti-gravity fitness classes have got me feeling a little bit more confident with my abilities, and a bit more willing (although I do still chicken out sometimes) to try something new and challenging.

At the start of every class, we climb into the super-strong anti-gravity hammock and get into our womb poses (see the top picture). At my first class with the Ladies’ Circle girls, I arrived late, and the girls were already in their wombs, looking for all the world like a load of bright purple alien cocoons. It was a little unnerving! You sit entirely encased in your hammock, soles of the feet together. Some people like to swing, others don’t. Personally, I like to gently swing from side to side as I hang there, leaving the stress of the day far behind. This decompresses my poor old spine like nothing else I’ve ever tried. Being in a seated position, but without all your weight pressing through your lower spine, feels incredible to someone who suffers from lower back pain.

After the initial relaxation, my instructor tends to like to get us flipped upside-down for the first pose of the class, usually in a variant of this move.

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The first time I attempted this, I thought I was never going to do it. In fact, I didn’t, my bad knee wasn’t quite flexible enough to get into position, and I felt too panicked about leaning further backwards to help it along. At my second class, and feeling a bit braver, I did it, and I felt a sense of accomplishment that I’ve never experienced before. At the class last night we had a new girl who attended, and when the instructor flipped herself into this pose, I sneaked a look at the new girl’s face, and her jaw was just about down to her chest. She looked horrified. Yet, a few minutes later I was giving her an upside-down round of applause as she swung down to join us.

The first time you go upside-down, it feels like quite a lot of pressure on your head, and a couple of times I’ve had to come back up because the feeling was so intense. But traditional yoga maintains that inversions are the most important poses, as they stimulate blood flow to the head and brain and other internal organs. Yoga teachers claim that the traditional headstand and handstand are the ‘fountains of youth.’ I can’t do a free-standing traditional headstand or handstand, but I can easily flip myself into a handstand using the hammock. The upside-down poses are my favourites. They look so difficult, but using the hammock as a pivot, and being brave enough to allow gravity to do the rest, it is so easy to get yourself into position. You basically just tip yourself backwards, lift up your legs and trust the hammock to hold you in whatever wrap you’re using. Trust in the hammock, and in yourself, is probably the biggest obstacle.

There is a bit of a  fear that you’re going to fall out of the hammock at first, and I must admit I do still feel a bit like this sometimes when we try something new. But once you’ve realised that the hammock will hold you, this fear does disappear for the most part. To be honest I have more of a fear of accidentally letting rip a huge fart at these classes, at any exercise class in fact. I think I’m scarred from the time I went to a pilates class and another woman in the group did the loudest fart I’ve ever heard. Afterwards, the room was so silent you could have heard a pin drop, and my lungs were bursting from trying not to laugh. I’ve fallen off a gym ball in front of some people before, but I think I might actually be so embarrassed that I’d spontaneously combust if a fart slipped out. This is genuinely more of a fear for me than slipping out of the hammock altogether. So far it hasn’t been an issue, so maybe being upside-down helps prevents attacks of gas. Sometimes I wonder if these thoughts are going through everyone else’s heads in the class, or if it’s just me – the weird tubby girl wobbling about at the back of the class, thinking about farts.

But, I digress.

The hammock can be used for other toning exercises too. These are great for anyone who has joint issues, because they support your weight during exercises like these.

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Our instructor has us doing some pretty brutal moves, like pull-ups and planks, all supported by the hammock. After one week’s class, I got down on the floor to do my back exercises the next evening, and couldn’t get back up because my stomach muscles were protesting too much. I genuinely thought for a moment that I’d have to wriggle downstairs like a worm and call 999 for help.

Sometimes the hammock does dig into your skin where your entire weight is being supported by it. I was left with a bruise in a rather uncomfortable place (let’s be no more specific than to say it was in the ‘pant zone’) one week, but I am getting used to it. Our instructor refuses to listen to us whining about it digging in, she just tells us we’re getting a deep tissue massage.

I am not massively fit, I’m a bit fat and I’m not hugely flexible (apart from my shoulders, for some reason), but I’ve been able to get into poses that I thought would be impossible. If you’d shown me pictures of these moves a month ago and said I would be able to do them, I’d have laughed at you, but I’ve done all of these, although possibly not as well as the ladies in these photos!

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It’s even inspired me to pick up my old yoga books and work my way through a few lessons of traditional hatha yoga, on which a lot of the poses are based.

Anti-gravity fitness is kind of faddy, like some of the other exercises I’ve tried. But I think because it is partly based on forms of exercise which have been around for centuries, it feels like it’s rooted in a bit more reality than something like Bokwa, which I’m still genuinely baffled by. I come out of the class feeling a foot taller than I actually am, with a lovely stretched out spine and no joint pain from having bounced around on a treadmill or in an aerobics class. I might not get up as much as a sweat as in the gym, but I do feel stronger, having worked muscles which, until now, I swear have been entirely dormant. I also sleep like the dead after a class.

I think I’m going to treat myself to another four week course. Hanging upside-down like a bat is just way too satisfying to give up…at least until that accidental fart slips out anyway.

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I don’t normally take much notice of whatever deliberately offensive thing professional attention-grabber Katie Hopkins is screeching about in order to generate publicity for herself, but her latest stunt has really hit a raw nerve with me. She has decided to put on 3.5 stones in weight, and then lose it, in order to show fat people how easy it is to lose weight. She shows such a lack of understanding of weight loss issues that I feel compelled to go against my better judgement and talk about her.

Her claim that, “fat people need to look in the mirror, look at themselves, and realise it’s their fault”, is thoughtless at best, and downright harmful at worst.

I have had weight issues since I was about seven years old. My weight has fluctuated up and down all my life, and I expect it will be a lifelong struggle for me to maintain some sort of control over my waistline. I accept responsibility for my own health, and I know that my weight issues are a result of calories in, versus calories out. But it is also so much more than that.

There will be some people who fit into Katie Hopkins’ stereotypical view that fat people are lazy and eat too much. I’m sure for some people, weight loss would be relatively simple if they really put their mind to it, but I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of people with weight issues have deep-seated emotional issues when it comes to food. Telling someone that to overcome those issues will be easy is a very ill-informed and reductive view. Saying to a fat person, “Why don’t you just lose weight?” is a little bit like telling a person with depression that they should “just cheer up.”

I eat when I am stressed, I eat when I am bored and I eat when I am unhappy. I eat as a way to celebrate and I eat as a reward. I know that this is not a particularly healthy approach to food, but it is a very difficult cycle to break, and something which I think would take years of therapy (and I’ve had some already) to fix. As a person whose BMI hovers around the border between overwight and obese, I am keenly aware that I am bigger than I should be, and my weight is a daily struggle. It’s something that I think about every day, and sometimes it really gets me down.

Most of the upward trends which I’ve experienced with my weight have been when I have been down, sad, or lonely. It’s too easy to eat in order to give yourself pleasure because you’re not getting pleasure from anywhere else. You then put on weight, and get sad about the result, so you look for pleasure in the same place again – food. It’s a vicious cycle, and recognising that it’s a vicious cycle doesn’t even help, because it is so difficult to break it. If you have deep-rooted issues of insecurity and low self-esteem, and hate your body, it would be wonderful to reach into a cupboard and pull out a size 10 body in order to make yourself feel better. You can’t do that, but you can reach into a cupboard and pull out a cake or a packet of crisps to bring you momentary pleasure. The trouble is, this is often followed by guilt and self-loathing, and then you go all the way back to the start of the cycle.

We’re all capable of being lazy from time to time. I’m not lazy when it comes to exercise – I just hate it. I go to the gym a couple of times a week to try to keep on top of my weight, but the truth is that I hate pretty much all forms of exercise, in the same way that I hate pretty much all romantic comedies, or absolutely every kind of seafood. You can tell me all you like that I’m being lazy and that I’d start to like fish if I found the right kind, but the fact is I wouldn’t. I just hate it. Some people are simply not cut out for exercise, and putting themselves through it week-in, week-out can be soul-crushing. Gasping for air while wobbling about on the treadmill, sweating and hurting, while slim gym-bunnies all around you make it look easy – well, it’s one of the most soul-destroying experiences there is. The two hours I spend in the gym is literally the lowest point of my week, every week. But I do it because I’m terrified of what would happen to my weight if I didn’t. It makes me genuinely miserable, but I do it anyway. I’m not looking for a pat on the head for this, I am just trying to disprove the theory that all fat people are lazy.

It’s no coincidence that one of my heaviest times was right after my dad died. The sadness I felt was so all-consuming that I didn’t have the will to do anything but shut myself in my house and eat comfort food. My self-esteem plumetted – one of the major positive influences on my life had been removed in one fell swoop, and I was left with an odd feeling of not really knowing who I was any more, and not really caring about myself. This wasn’t me being ignorant or lazy, this was me really struggling to get through every day, and finding comfort in something that was easily available to me.

This is a very personal blog post, and that’s because weight loss is such a personal issue – something which a lot of people simply do not seem to understand. There is no simple cure-all fix for everyone. Yes, on paper, the solution seems easy – if you eat less and exercise more you will lose weight. But if you feel worthless, you might also feel like you don’t deserve the time, energy and effort that goes into losing weight. If you’re plagued with feelings like, “Why do I bother?”, “What’s the point?” and “I’m a failure”, you’re not going to be in the correct mindset that’s required to lose weight.

Katie Hopkins obviously doesn’t suffer from this type of emotional attachment to food. I’m not saying she doesn’t have her own insecurites, but she clearly isn’t a victim of the kind of vicious cycle I’m talking about – well, lucky her. She is missing the point so colossally with this that I fear her efforts are going to be completely pointless, as all she will learn is that a person who doesn’t have weight loss issues has no problem losing weight. That’s not exactly a scientific breakthrough.

To tar all fat people with the same brush and say they are lazy and to blame for their own problems is reductive and harmful. Yes, we are all in charge of our own health, but we need the right tools to fix ourselves, should we wish to. Obesity is often a symptom of a broader problem, and it is this underlying problem which needs to be tackled. I’m not a stupid person – I know I eat too much, and I hate exercise. But knowing that, and having the psycological means to do something about it are two competely different things.

I know that Katie Hopkins makes a living out of saying and doing outrageous things, and that I shouldn’t really waste my time talking about her latest ridiculous statements. But she should think a little bit more carefully about the consequences of her actions. I think she might genuinely believe what she’s doing will help people see the light, but in truth all she may end up doing is causing sad, vulnerable people to suffer a further blow to their already low self-esteem.


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Many years ago, on a blog far, far away, I wrote a post about a zumba class I attended. My experience wasn’t altogether positive, despite it making for a most amusing anecdote. I found the class weird, embarrassing and rather pointless, and the whole corporate aspect of it was quite off-putting: instructors wear official Zumba parachute pants and bras, and you do the classes to official Zumba music. The whole thing is like a loud and suspiciously cheerful bouncy cult.

I’ve been attempting to exercise regularly for years now, in a bid to stay a little bit fitter and keep the weight off. But I don’t enjoy exercise at all. Recently, I defected from my decrepit old gym to a newer, nicer one, in the vain hope that it would motivate me a bit more. In actual fact, all that’s happened is that I’m just utterly miserable in nicer surroundings, so when I caught sight of a list of exercise classes I thought I might give one a go, for a change.

That’s when I saw that my gym offers a twice weekly Bokwa class. What the hell is Bokwa? I thought. I googled it, and couldn’t believe I’d stumbled across a fitness idea that was even more ridiculous than Zumba.

This is the definition on the official Bokwa site (I’m steadfastly refusing to copy and paste the first paragraph from the site because it contains an erroneous apostrophe, which has made me furious):

BOKWA® is Different. It is not really a dance workout – there is no choreography and no counting steps. Participants draw letters and numbers with their feet, while moving together to music in free form rhythm.

Everyone is doing it. If you can move and you can spell, you can do Bokwa®. From 4 year old kids, to men and women in their seventies, to guys with “2 left feet”, to world champion dancers, Bokwa ® engages participants of all ages in the same class and to the same music.

What now? Fitness crossed with spelling? I shouldn’t really be surprised, one of my colleagues was telling me the other day that a friend of hers participates in boxing chess, which is exactly what it sounds like. You’d think that at some point, people would just admit that all the possible forms of exercise have already been invented, but then, some genius will come up with a brand new, preposterous idea like ‘naked backwards hockey’ or ‘death match Twister’ and everyone gets in line to don the official clothing and have a go.

Even after reading the definition, I couldn’t quite get my head around what it would involve. Most people, when I described it, imagined some sort of weird YMCA type thing, like semaphore but with added techno music.

Actually, there might be some mileage in that idea…but I digress.

I went on YouTube and watched a couple of videos, which baffled me even further. The people all look insanely happy, like someone has pumped laughing gas into the studio, but I couldn’t quite see how they were spelling anything.

So I went along not really knowing what to expect. I was not surprised at all to be greeted with an instructor in official regulation Bokwa trousers and top. She did have generic awful aerobics music rather than offical Bokwa music though, so that was one thing it had over Zumba already.

She started off by saying that she only really did Ls and Js, which already set alarm bells off in my head. Exactly what was I going to be able to spell with just Ls and Js? I had wondered if I’d be able to go freestyle and spell out rude words, or maybe the long foreign names of sports personalities. I reckon I’d burn a few calories spelling out the name of the Ferrari F1 big cheese, Luca di Montezemolo.

The basic move was to walk forwards, kick, walk backwards and then bounce – so everything started with this move. So to do an L, you did the forwards and backwards bit, then stepped to the side and bounced, then stepped back to where you started. I get that, that’s an L shape. To do the J, you did the forwards and backwards bit, then you did this stepping around in a curve bit. I get that, that’s a J shape. But then because you didn’t end up back where you started when you did the forwards and backwards bit, you had to do all this crazy bobbins to get back to the beginning so you could start all over again. It involved a weird kicky jig and some sliding about, which really ruined the lines of my perfectly crafted J. So much for it not involving stupid fiddly choregraphy, it turns out there is plenty of it.
Then she started adding other moves to the letters, so an L with an unecessary booty shake, or a J with some pointless bouncing. By the end of it, I was a little bit sweaty because the room was hot, but I was completely sick of doing the walking forwards and backwards bit and I never got out of breath at all. When I’m at an aerobics class of any kind, I want simple, easy, definitive moves that I can do without taxing my brain. If I’m having to think too much about whether I need to shake my booty over here, or do a chest pop over there, I end up not doing the moves vigorously enough to get my heart rate up. By the end of the class, I didn’t really feel like I’d had a cardio workout.
The instructor threw in an S and one X into the routine, but the rest of the time we just did the Ls and Js. My colleague gleefully pointed out that I could profess love for the pop band JLS in a roundabout fashion with those letters, but spelling anything else was out of the question. I think the only thing stupider than basing a fitness regime on spelling is basing a fitness regime on spelling and then not giving you a single vowel – you’d never get that sort of behaviour from Carol Vorderman.
Also, there was the issue of my ultimate aerobics pet hate rearing its head again. She tried to make us make noises. When I’m working out, the only sounds you’re ever going to hear me utter are ‘urgh’, ‘oof’ and possibly ‘kill me now’. I am not going to whoop, and I’m certainly not going to make that terrible ‘oo-eh, oo-eh’ noise that idiot drunken Brits do in Ibiza between drinking pints of lager and vomiting in the gutter. I am not happy, I am at the gym. The gym is an awful trial that I have to get through two to three times a week, not an enjoyable experience which is going to prompt me to make ‘joyous’ noises.
In summary, Bokwa is pointless and awful and ridiculous, but there will always be those weird people lining up to don their regulation Bokwa trousers and do some whooping, whilst attempting to spell a word with no vowels, and two of the least common consonants in our language – and some crazy genius is going to get preposterously rich from it all.
I really should get myself some semaphore flags and see if I can come up with something…