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Rediscovering my enthusiasm for exercise

Nearly two years ago, on 14 March 2020, I ran Heslington parkrun. There was a strange buzz about the crowd like we knew things were about to change.

At this point, I was at the fittest I had felt for years – I was running regularly, managing to get to the gym, eating well, drinking less and all-around feeling good. I was actually looking forward to running my first ever marathon!

A week later, we were in lockdown. My exercise routine went to pot and the struggle would continue for some while.

Work soon got crazy busy. I went from having a relatively good work/life balance to working every hour I could: evenings, weekends, and all day every day to keep up with the ever-changing COVID guidance and ensure our patients had good access to our care.

I stopped prioritising my own wellbeing. Keeping up with the kids school work and my own responsibilities was tricky alongside the stress of not knowing what the pandemic would bring next. It was a difficult few months.

"I lost all enthusiasm, energy and motivation to exercise despite knowing the benefits it would bring me."

I am in a privileged position: I have a job, my kids are in school, I have a husband who often works from home and I own some gym equipment, yet still I struggled to exercise regularly during the various lockdowns.

I lost all enthusiasm, energy and motivation to exercise despite knowing the benefits it would bring me, I soon felt sluggish and this, in turn, led to me feeling resentful. I would try to go for a run, not enjoy it because I was much slower and frustrated, and that would put me off trying again. I got into a really bad cycle.

A lot of my exercise pre-COVID centred around social activities: parkrun with a pal, a run around my village with some friends, or a gym class with my husband. When we lost the ability to meet up with people and, for me in particular, to attend parkrun, I lost all structure and routine and I really struggled with the lack of interaction.

One of the main benefits of exercise for me is feeling less tired. If I move, I feel energised. I sleep better and I don’t feel exhausted every day. When I don’t exercise, I feel so fatigued but then struggle to get the energy to put my activewear on and do some activity.

I am a doctor and I should know better, but it was hard. I kept seeing posts on social media about discipline being important to see improvement and this got to me.

Things started to pick up in the Spring/Summer of 2021. Parkrun was back, I took up tennis, we could meet up with friends and we thought things might normalise. I finally got some rhythm and mojo back. I slowly started to get on my spin bike more regularly and head out for an occasional run. I really started to enjoy doing some basic strength work – the benefits of this are huge!

Then I got COVID and it knocked me back. I struggled to exercise for 8 weeks after – my heart rate would climb and my energy levels would just plummet so quickly. Again, the frustration crept in and I couldn’t see a way back to where I had been 2019/20 when I had felt so strong and fit.

"I decided to do some form of exercise every day – it could be 10 minutes or 60 minutes, whatever I could fit in."

Things started to improve in December when I joined a challenge with my virtual spinning pals and this improved my motivation. I was regularly doing some cardio and strength-related exercise and my energy levels slowly started to improve.

In January, I decided to do some form of exercise every day – it could be 10 minutes or 60 minutes, whatever I could fit in. I really enjoyed the routine and the feeling of accomplishment. The more I moved, the better I felt.

I don’t think I had appreciated how “out of sorts” I had been. This pandemic has affected us all in so many ways and the previous year or two had definitely taken its toll.

Why did things feel easier? Work had settled (still busy, but I am now better at boundaries) and I was better able to preserve time in the week to prioritise myself and my health. I knew exercise made me feel physically and probably more importantly, mentally better. Now I strive to fit it in, even if it just a 10-minute yoga class on my TV or a walk around the village with my dog.

Did discipline and dedication to a goal help? No. I realised I needed to forget about discipline and progress and just enjoy the process – and ignore a lot of Instagram posts!

Exercise should be fun and we should all move for enjoyment. I took up tennis last year because I wanted to try something new (and there are tennis courts half a mile away) and I adore playing – it has been a surprise and a joy. Sometimes we feel pressured to enjoy a certain type of exercise or only do things we are good at.

I stopped running for a while as I lost the love for it, I didn’t feel like a runner and this was making my return to exercise more pressured, so I stopped. Am I still a runner? I run sometimes, therefore I am a runner. Would I still be able to do a 16 mile training run? No, but who cares right now? No one!

"Comparing myself to others is fruitless – we are all on different stages of our journey."

Over the last two years I have realised that it’s important to know why I exercise and what the benefit is. I like the feeling after accomplishing something; the glow after a long run; I love to feel strong and full of energy; I want to be a role model for my kids and I want to be able to keep up with them!

Comparing myself to others is fruitless – we are all on different stages of our journey. Some are training for races or events, some are exercising to aid weight loss, some are moving to improve their mental health, and others may be doing it for the social interaction. Your 5km run personal best might be someone else’s 5km comfortable pace. It is so easy to get down about someone else’s achievements, so turn off social media every now and again.

Take the small wins. Did you manage a 5-minute YouTube class? Walk the kids to school instead of hopping in the car? Win two games in a set? Whatever it might be, celebrate yourself.

I never ever thought I would have been able to train for a marathon, join local tennis leagues or lift heavy weights. Yet here we are. Goals help me to provide some structure, but they are guidelines not rules. Do not beat yourself up if you miss a workout or sleep through a parkrun alarm.

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Dr Abbie Brooks

Dr Abbie Brooks qualified at Hull York Medical School in 2008.

She joined Priory Medical Group in 2014 as a Partner based at Park View Surgery.

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