The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand promotes physical fitness through its BE ACTIVE campaign: Do what you can, enjoy what you do, be active and move your mood.
I’m moving, I’m moving. Wait a minute … walking to the fridge—getting the hang of this now—opening it … there it is. Just as the monkeys stare at the monolith with awe and amazement in 2001, so do I fix mine eyes upon this:
I rip the paper off and break off eight squares, the almonds and raisins and chocolate melting together in a frenzy of ecstatic taste. I’m doing what I can, and enjoying what I do.
It’s not going to work, is it?
I learnt this lesson in the latter half of last year, when my weight insidiously ballooned to the point where going out in public wearing jeans was akin to showing off an anatomic diagram. And they left flesh wounds when I peeled them off at night. To quote Billy Connolly, I’d find “Levi” written around my navel, although I’ve long forsaken name brand jeans for those $20 pairs at The Warehouse.
Child labour be damned, I need pants.
Sigh, I can’t procrastinate any longer, can I? It’s talking about exercise, isn’t it?
I have a long and difficult relationship with physical activity. It stretches back to school, where I didn’t excel at sport in an environment where boys were expected to be star athletes within a very limited range of team sporting codes: rugby, soccer or cricket.
One of my earliest PE memories is still burned into my brain: ten years old, the new kid at primary school, and being lined up with all my male classmates by the teacher to see how far we could throw a ball, with everyone’s results being measured and written down.
I was towards the back of the line, either because I was shying away from the task or out of random assignment, I can’t remember. But as each boy stepped up and launched that ball like a torpedo across the field with balletic precision, my stomach filled up with helium, the nausea inside creeping up my gullet as each set of numbers was called by the teacher and noted down:
Not much room for deviation here.
I finally reached the front, and held the ball in my hand. That furry, green, firm-but-spongy fuzz felt like a shotput.
The eyes of the whole class on me, as well as others who were beginning to gather round, having been let out early for afternoon break time, I breathed in and out and prepared to use every last vestige of energy to launch this stupid fucking ball into orbit.
I drew my right arm back and with a vicious and blind explosion thrust it forward, only to see it arc down into the grass, dirt flying everywhere, before a few spasmic bounces gave way to a gentle, mocking roll.
I heard the laughter before I saw it, coming from all around me, my eyes fixed on the tape measure as my bum throw was dealt the same scientific measurement that had been dealt to the other boys.
“3.4,” cried the teacher, looking up at me and laughing along with all the others.
I turned around and left the school grounds, walking at first but then breaking into a run so those ape-like, pathetic trolls couldn’t see my ape-like pathetic display of unmanly emotion as the tears started to run down my pale face.
I’d never had any great interest in sport, but it was from that day that I grew to resent it. And not just sport, but any physical activity. If I was going to be rejected, then I would get there first. I would exclude myself, and wear it as a badge of honour.
Throughout high school, I avoided sport whenever I could—nigh-on impossible—to avoid my shortcomings being revealed like a soft pink underbelly for a bunch of crocodiles to get their teeth into.
Of course, sport wasn’t the only part of being active—there was also the horror of gym. How many chin-ups can you do? In front of the class. Can you climb the rope up to the ceiling? And not just can you, but how fast can you do it? In front of the class.
That’s the funny thing about that PE—perhaps it was abbreviated to allow us to forget what the letters stood for: Physical Education. Education. That’s right, fucking teach me something.
When I’m in maths class, you teach me about algebra. When I’m in science class, you teach me about chemicals. When I’m in English, we studied Shakespeare. In religious education, some bollocks about a carpenter who did magic tricks—but at least the intent was there!
In PE, we were never taught anything about ball skills, or how to throw or kick. If you couldn’t even do one chin-up, we weren’t taught that strengthening our upper bodies would help us to do this. And we certainly weren’t taught about the positive brain chemicals that are released when we exercise.
No, there were only three principles of PE: compare, contrast, and laugh.
Luckily, I was a skinny rake throughout my twenties, so it wasn’t necessary for me to engage in physical activity for concerns such as staving off obesity or diabetes. But I was also missing out on something that would have had a profound impact on maintaining my mental wellbeing during a time when I was often treading water.
My school experiences left me completely disempowered around physical activity, with branded negative self-belief about my co-ordination, fitness and strength. I didn’t consider for years—not until my late twenties—that I had the power to be able to change the shape of my body if I was unhappy with it.
I started to go to the gym and lift weights, and slowly learned to ignore the people around me, even though I thought they were looking at me. They were phantoms from the past, and my brain was just tricking me. There was a thirty-year-old man with a good decade’s worth of accomplishments looking back at me in the mirror when I sat at the bench press, not a frightened, gangly fifteen-year-old.
Yet motivation to keep up a consistent fitness regime was hard. I’d only have to miss one day out of my routine, and it’d fall like a house of cards.
I realised this year that I’d been doing it for the wrong reasons. Working out to improve my appearance was ticking the box of being active, and was doing what I could. But I wasn’t enjoying what I did, and I certainly wasn’t moving my mood.
Dean found an iPhone app called Couch to 5K that completely turned things around for me. It set out an incremental programme of fitness that, over a twelve-week period, got you to a point where you could do a 5-kilometre run. Starting with simple walking, and adding in staggered bursts of running as the weeks passed, the goals were achievable and manageable.
Instead of looking at the athleticism of an All Black or the impossibly beautiful mesomorph torso plastered throughout gay media, wondering how I was supposed to cross that chasm (let alone questioning whether it was even necessary), all I had to do was look at a simple instruction that said: today you’re going to walk for five minutes, then run for two.
Say goodbye to compare, contrast and defeat. Say hello to achievement, and those elusive endorphins that annoying fitness freaks go on about.
Yes, being active does feel good.
And there are unlimited ways in which you can make this link in the wellbeing chain work for you. I’m still working it out—my fitness regime has dropped off again, alas—but the difference now is that I know that I can do it.
And so can you.