I was never particularly active when I was younger. Certainly not at school, where the emphasis was on competitive sports, as I was terrible at most of them. I didn’t really start exercising regularly until I was almost 30 and training for a Himalayan trek. It was a big shock to my body. I hated it at first. But gradually, I grew to like going to the gym, and enjoyed being fit enough to enjoy cycling round Manchester; exercise became an important part of my life.
However, just a few years later, the palindromic rheumatism put a halt to my regular training, especially at the beginning, when I didn’t know whether or not I’d seriously damage something. Often, I’d mistake a flare-up for an exercise-induced injury, but when the pain stopped so suddenly, realise that it was just the arthritis. And yet, as all the leaflets and consultants will tell you, exercise is important for people with arthritis. Once I was reassured that I wouldn’t hurt myself, I was back at the gym. But the problem was… each week there was another bit of my body that wouldn’t work. Sometimes, I’d not be able to use my hands, so weights were out of the question. Other times, my knees were giving me gip and there would be little point doing anything at all. Eventually, I lost all motivation for going because I couldn’t be consistent enough. I concentrated instead on the fact that I was cycling when I could (as a mode of transport) so at least I was getting some aerobic exercise. With occasional yoga and pilates, I figured that I was doing enough.
The thing that I’ve always loved more than anything is dancing. I love lots of different kinds of music – especially live music – and I love the feeling of totally losing myself at a gig, and dancing totally unselfconsciously. But I don’t like clubbing any more (too loud, too late, too full of drunk people), and there aren’t enough live gigs to get me out dancing regularly enough.
I’ve never been trained in any formal kinds of dancing, so at first, the idea of dance exercise classes – which is essentially what Zumba is – was kind of daunting. However, my first class last year was so fantastically fun and liberating that I was hooked. Never mind that sometimes my knees meant that I couldn’t really jump as much. If I could walk, I could go. Unfortunately, when that teacher left the leisure centre, the classes stopped and I couldn’t find any others. However, a year on and there heaps of classes near me to choose from. Even better, there are classes in the morning – when I am more likely to actually have the energy to GET there. The problem with exercising in the evening – when most classes are on – is that I often have run out of energy by then and, even though I know I will love it, can’t really drag myself to get there.
The fact that I love the music at Zumba and enjoy the classes means that I can now incorporate some regular exercise back into my life again. While I was feeling quite depressed over the past few weeks, it’s no exaggeration to say that Zumba was the only thing that was keeping me going and getting me out of bed in the morning.
The class is just so much fun that it takes me out of my head (now that I’m more familiar with the routines), and into my body. Often in my life, when I’m focusing on my body, it’s for a negative reason – because I’m in a lot of pain, or because I can’t do something (my hands are too stiff/knees stop me walking/jaw stops me eating). But when I’m doing exercise – whatever type of exercise – even if that is limited by pain or a flare up, I feel so much more positive about myself. I know that it’s to do with the endorphins, but I also really think that it’s an important aspect of being present, of being in my body, in the now. It promotes a more positive relationship between my mind and the body that mind is living in. Also, I spend so much time in bed when I am at home that moving as much as I do in a class makes my body feel alive again.
Today, I was in quite a lot of knee pain in class and the temptation was for my mind to take over and be disappointed because I couldn’t participate as fully as I normally do, and frustrated that I wasn’t ‘up to it’. It took a lot of effort, but I managed to revel in the music, in the swing of my hips, in the fact that I was there AT ALL and not in bed, and in just letting my body enjoy what it could do. Amazingly, the finger flare ups had completely gone by the end of the class, and the knees were no worse for it either. I left feeling exhilarated and positive again. I can’t wait for Friday’s class.