I have often wondered what would happen if I stopped exercising and changed my diet. How quickly might things go downhill? It was an experiment I could never bring myself to do because I could imagine how dreadful I was likely to feel. This Christmas, the chance came and it wasn’t by choice!
Despite the job that I now do, exercise and eating healthily has not always been at the top of my agenda. I hated sport in school and toast was my default before the chef came along and sorted the situation out. However, having been teaching exercise for over 12 years now, I can say for sure that my body has rarely let me down.
During that time, I have never suffered from the aches and pains I often hear others describe. Physically I feel no different to when I was in my 20’s, probably better. In fact, I had way more back problems then than I do now. I could never really prove that this was down to exercise, diet and lifestyle or not. Now I know for sure.
Ten days before Christmas I discovered I had Covid. Never having had it before I didn’t know what to expect. The first two days weren’t great: a banging headache, fever, a cough and no energy. After that, it was really very manageable and I felt very lucky that it had happened at a time when I was able to completely rest. What I didn’t expect though, is how long it would last. Someone told me to expect at least 6 weeks before getting back to normal, possibly longer. I didn’t believe in a reasonably healthy person it could last that long….but it did!
For at least three weeks I did no exercise at all. I spent a large part of the day in bed. For the next three, I started to do a little more but nowhere near my normal schedule. My diet also completely changed. My taste had been impacted and I often didn’t feel like eating a lot. Instead I would revert to type, grazing through the day. Toast and butter featured way too regularly and meal times went out of the window. Without realising, I had set up my own experiment. The effects, even after such a short time, were dramatic.
- My lower back began to ache, sometimes making it harder to get out of bed without pushing myself up with my arms.
- My sciatic nerve started to give me that very distinctive nervy niggle. Having suffered from a severe case of sciatica when I was just starting the business 12 years ago, (I was unable to stand up for longer than a minute because of the pain!), it wasn’t something I wanted to repeat.
- I would feel out of breath from walking up stairs. A product of Covid no doubt, but also of not being able to do the cardiovascular exercise I am used to.
- My neck and shoulders went into the kind of spasm that can last for days.
- My body shape changed and I noticed that my tummy was more bloated.
- I could feel that I had lost strength in my arms and legs.
- I suspect I probably put on a few pounds although I can’t confirm that as I don’t have scales.
- Without going into too much detail, my ‘system’ felt clogged up.
- My energy levels were low.
- Mentally I felt sluggish, unmotivated and lacking in creativity.
In short, it was a pretty dramatic shift in just a few weeks! Although I understand the science and keep up with the latest research on the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet, there is nothing like personal experience to bring those messages home. When you are eating well and exercising regularly, you don’t necessarily appreciate the difference it is making. Equally, if you have never been able to commit to regular exercise for whatever reason, and you know your diet is not the best, then it is probably hard to imagine that it could have such an influence on how you are feeling.
My turnaround strategy
I knew what I had to do to get back on track and I gave myself the time and space to do it. Here’s the personal formula I followed to bring my mind and body back to optimum function:
- Eliminate the grazing and have proper meals including lean protein, lots of vegetables and some healthy fats.
- Have toast only as part of a meal eg with scrambled eggs, and even then only occasionally.
- Aim to eat freshly cooked food using ingredients that are as close to their source and natural state as possible. So many foods are wrapped up in the ‘healthy’ marketing jargon it is easy to be mislead. If it is in a plastic container then it has usually been through a factory and therefore is processed in some way, no matter how much ‘plant based’, ‘protein rich’, jargon it is wrapped up in.
- A combination of strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular exercise to address the different aspects of fitness and challenge my muscles and joints in different ways. On average, I do less than an hour a day and some days nothing at all. This is all relative though. If you do no exercise at the moment and manage to start with an hour a week, or even 10 minutes every day, then that will already be a big step forward and you will gain huge benefit.
- Incorporate as much day to day activity as you can eg leaving the car at home where possible and walking up stairs when I spot them.
They are not dramatic changes but I did them consistently.
I don’t want this to turn into a sanctimonious piece about what you ‘should’ be doing. There is more than enough of that out there already. Rather, I wanted to share my experiences because I have actually been quite surprised by the extent of the changes I felt and the speed at which it happened.
What has been encouraging though, is that the solution has not been a complex one. No counting calories, taking protein shakes, working out macros, monitoring blood sugar levels, hitting the gym, or even tracking my steps. I am sure there is a place for some of those things depending on what you want to achieve. However, I can say definitively that getting the basics right will make a massive difference. Believing that the power is in your hands to make the changes you want to see is key. It’s certainly been worth the effort. It is uplifting to know that I decide how I want to feel and am in control of making it happen. The alternative is not where I want to find myself again anytime soon!