Like most women, I’ve had a pretty love/hate relationship with my body for as long as I can remember. Teenage years were full of mild amounts of self-hatred towards my breasts and belly, and general apathy towards physical exercise due to being rubbish at pretty much all sports.
While not a classic yo yo dieter – I’ve never got particularly fat, nor particularly thin – my weight has fluctuated over the years, as has my body confidence. Despite having read classic feminist texts around body image (“Fat is a Feminist Issue” and Naomi Wolf’s “Beauty Myth”) it’s really hard to completely and utterly fully shake off pervasive societal influences.
I only started to exercise properly when I was 30, and when I did, I developed a new attitude to my body. One which was around seeing my strength and stamina improve, and reaping the rewards of being properly fit when I trekked for three weeks in the mountains of Nepal – one of the greatest achievements of my life so far.
When the arthritis struck ten years ago, a whole bunch of different emotions towards my body emerged. There were negative emotions about my body letting me down, causing me pain and preventing me from fully functioning in the world. Despite years of mindfulness and meditation practice, it’s hard, even now, when a flare rears up to not feel disappointed in my body. When fatigue forces me to cancel something I wanted to do, it takes a conscious effort not to feel angry and upset with my body for letting me down.
This is why continuing to exercise has been crucial to my body and my self-image, as it’s enabled me to focus on what I could still do, rather than what I can’t. And yet… and yet, I’ve often wondered – what could my body still really do, how hard can I push it before the arthritis rebels? I haven’t done a physical challenge for a while (apart from living with arthritis, which is challenge enough), so when the opportunity came to review the Apples & Pears fitness bootcamp for Queen of Retreats, I jumped at the chance.
Lots of people pointed out that I didn’t need to lose weight, but that wasn’t the point for me. I wanted to see what I could do in a week. What I could put my body through and what I was still capable of. I was clear to myself from the outset – if I was too fatigued, or my joints were hurting too much, I’d rest, or not do the activity or exercise. The trainers were understanding and supportive, and reiterated to everyone the importance of listening to your body, and respecting its limits.
I arrived at the bootcamp, both nervous and excited. I am generally pretty fit at the moment. Despite the arthritis (or maybe because of it), I exercise most days – cycle on my bike, go to zumba classes, plus some pilates or yoga too. But would I be able to cope with six full days of exercising ALL DAY? I was also arriving in the middle of a flare – my elbow (in the tendon and joint), and in my shoulder, plus fingers flaring up and down. This meant I was extra cautious in all the weight bearing and resistance activities. The shoulder was particularly troubling as it had been constant for over a month, had been really painful and was impacting on my mobility.
On less sleep than I get at home, I found that I had enough energy to do pretty much all of the activities during the week, missing out on only a few. I swam, I boxed, I did silly relay races and team games. I played basketball (badly!), and hiked for 13 miles. I cycled, did circuits, kettle bells and used medicine balls. And at the end of each day, instead of being fatigued, out of spoons and incapable of functioning, I was only as tired as everyone else. Given that the week before, I’d had evenings where the pain had been so bad that I was too exhausted to have a conversation, this was a complete surprise.
As the week progressed, my flares even began to dissipate, and my shoulder, which had been so bad the previous week that I could not lift it above my head, actually made a full recovery. By the end of the week, I was even able to do shoulder presses and other weight bearing exercises with no apparent ill effects at all. To say I was proud, pleased and shocked was an understatement. I was blown away.
By the end of the week, I had cultivated a completely new relationship with my body, and one that had been absent for a while. I actually started to respect it. At 43, it was still pretty fit, still pretty mobile and it was able to exercise for at least six hours a day without paying me back with arthritis flares or fatigue. Yes, I was hurting – but the muscle pain caused by exercise felt like an achievement rather than a punishment.
On the last day, legs heavy from having done about a million squats, and muscles tired from six days of exercise, we walked up a hill for forty minutes, and then did a timed run of just over a mile (1.6 miles I was told). I started at a jog and I continued on from start to finish. I didn’t stop. I pushed myself as much as I could and kept going despite screaming lungs and petulant legs. Finishing (first!) at the end of the test without having stopped once was one of my biggest achievements of the week.
I’ve returned from bootcamp completely in awe of my body and what it can achieve and overcome. I love it for all of its aches, pains, faults and anomalies, for what it can do and what it can’t. I’ve learned that it can do even more than it does already in terms of exercise, and not to be scared of using weights. I’ve learned that inactivity is more likely to use up limited spoons, than activity (which is something I sort of knew anyway), and that I can be as fit and active as the next person. Most importantly I learned that I can still love who I am, (and including my limitations and my arthritis in that), from head to toe, from inside and out.
Big thanks to all the staff at Apples & Pears: Woody and Gary, Katie, Heather, Annie and Harriet.