Why it’s better to exercise for your health and the way it makes you feel, not just your appearance, by Susannah Taylor
A recent Mintel report states that the number one reason women want to get fitter is due to their appearance, whereas for men it’s number four on the list. For the guys, reasons such as ‘Feeling generally unfit’, ‘After advice from a GP or health professional’ and ‘After serious illness’ come first as their primary reasons for taking up exercise. In a world today where fitness is becoming hugely influenced by social media and particularly Instagram, there has become a new voyeuristic take on fitness, with too many people focussing on getting perfect Kayla Itsines abs or looking good in gym gear being their primary reason for getting fit. Obviously being 'in shape' is an incredible thing, but so is exercising for health reasons and the gazillion other ways it can enhance our lives.
Unfortunately there are many so called 'health experts' out there that are pushing a six pack as the pinnacle of healthy living. However, it is also reassuring to know that there really are some great experts out there pushing a very positive message about our bodies. I have trained with personal trainer and health coach Steve Mellor from Freedom2train for four years and hardly ever do we talk about how I can get better abs or a firmer backside - we talk about getting stronger/ feeling more powerful/ having better functionality/ being athletic/ avoiding injury, and as a result I have become fascinated by how my body works and how I can tune it . Another trainer who embraces a better relationship with our bodies is Dan Roberts who has started a very popular Instagram campaign called #Loveyourbodyfriday with the belief that our 'Body is an instrument not an ornament.' It is a celebration of what our bodies can do, not how we see them.
Here's why I believe its important we broaden our health horizens...
About four years ago I decided to start getting fit. I started running, not because I wanted a flatter stomach or a firmer backside, but I just wanted to feel better. With two small children (they were 3 and 5 at the time), and in the midst of starting up this website, I was completely and utterly shattered and I would wake up every morning feeling like my body and my head were filled with bricks. On the advice of a very fit PE teacher friend I decided to start moving.
I will never forget the weekend I started - I was hungover, puce in the face and hugely out of breath - and I couldn’t run half a mile without feeling my heart was going to explode out of my chest. But thanks to the help of Steve Mellor and a brilliant book called Run Fat Bitch Run by Ruth Field, within about a month I was running to the next village and back.
Above anything, the sense of achievement and empowerment of arriving back at our back door, sweaty, caked in mud having run three miles across the fields, was absolutely huge. The feeling of being able to do this thing called ‘fitness’ which, to me, had always been something other people did, was immense. At school I was in the tennis, swimming and netball teams but I dropped out when I was 14 when I got massively into my art. Sport was sadly seen as a bit uncool, and I found it all too competitive, plus all I’d ever been told was, ‘Susannah you’re just not a runner’ (I hope teachers have stopped saying this sort of thing to kids). Starting to feel fit was a revelation to me - one day as I ran down the hill in the summer sunlight in our next door village, I was so overwhelmed by how good it felt, how beautiful the evening was, that tears of happiness ran down my face. I hadn’t felt that good in years - I was doing something 100% for me, not my husband, nor kids, nor my work. Exercising, I also discovered, was a way better high than any alcoholic beverage could ever be, which I then gave up from Monday-Friday as a result. What’s more, it also improved everything around me. I was less prone to freaking out about my to-do list, I got more done, and I was calmer with my family.
Today, four years on, I can’t imagine my life without exercise. I have gone on to compete in three triathlons and I am biking round Ibiza in aid of Great Ormond Street this summer. I do an array of different fitness sessions about four times a week (the key for me is mixing it up), from training with Freedom2Train , spinning, time in the gym, weights, running, cycling, swimming or boxing (I LOVE boxing!).
Of course, I can't deny that feeling great in a bikini when I’ve just turned 40 feels pretty amazing too; however fitness remains, for me, something I do for the way it makes me feel - stronger, happier, less stressed, just more me - it's time out, time alone, time for bettering myself. I honestly believe that if you focus on the major health and lifestyle benefits of exercising, being mindful of how your body works, and how you are benefitting yourself rather than just a desire to look better, then the better backside and abs will follow.
Here are my 10 life changing reasons to exercise that aren’t about appearance:
1. Strong is way better than skinny
It is now a well known fact that women should be lifting weights and that it’s a myth they will make you look bulky. You may love or hate the idea of CrossFit but their belief in functional fitness (exercises that mimic the way we move in everyday life) has influenced the entire fitness industry today. Learning to squat properly, lifting weights and using your body as resistance will help improve all-over bodily functions - everything from lifting your children and not putting your back out, to picking up heavy shopping bags or going skiing and coming home injury free. I also know from experience that feeling strong in your body helps you mentally feel strong too. If you are looking for a functional fitness programme to do at home go to our Get The Gloss 24 week programme, Project Me which has been devised by the brilliant Joslyn Thompson Rule, a Nike Master Trainer, keen CrossFitter and health coach.
2. Exercise strengthens your heart
The fitness world seems to be focussing on the way our abs look, but surely we should be focussing more on strengthening our hearts? Steve Mellor of Freedom2Train explains the importance of a healthy heart ‘As you get fitter, your heart gets stronger and in turn becomes more efficient at pumping more blood out per beat (a process which is called your 'stroke volume') which then means it needs to beat less often, which in turn brings your resting heart rate down.” A more efficient heart improves your body’s ability to pump blood to your lungs and your muscles which in turn improves the efficiency of your entire body. Result.
3. You will inspire your children
We all know that our children’s brains are like sponges, they learn from what’s around them. So, if you’re sat at your computer 24/7 or on the sofa watching boxsets all weekend, then what sort of message does that send to your kids? One of the most positive, inspiring messages for a child to receive from their parents is that getting outside, moving and being healthy is a priority. Last night my 7 year old son ran round a park and did a load of press-ups and I know it's because I showed him the Nike Better For It video the day before.
4. Meet the magic of endorphins
We hear a lot about endorphins, but what actually are they? Endorphins are neurotransmitters, chemicals that pass signals in the brain from one neuron to the next and play a key role in our central nervous system. They block pain but are also responsible for our feelings of pleasure. Stress and pain trigger endorphins (I have never felt so crazily, naturally ‘high’ as after I gave birth) but so does exercise. I know from personal experience that that 'runner's high’ really does exist, but in my experience you need to work for it - lifting weights or taking aerobic exercise, for me trigger the greatest response.
5. You will increase your bone strength
Bone is a living tissue that responds to exercise by becoming stronger. Our bone mass peaks in our 20s but then unfortunately we begin to lose it from our 30s. However, you can help prevent bone loss through exercise. Mellor says we should all include some weight bearing exercise into our weekly exercise. “When you load your muscles/ bones they become stronger because they are being used.” Weight bearing exercises include movement such as weight training, jogging, climbing stairs, using your body as resistance (think press-ups, squats, burpees) and tennis, however it’s important Mellor says to build up slowly, and to train according to your ability in order to avoid injury. For the record, swimming, rowing, cross training or cycling are not weight bearing exercises.
6. You will slow the ageing process
Fitness undoubtedly makes us feel stronger and keeps the blood pumping as we age, meaning our bodies don't begin to stagnate. However, according to Mellor it's really important not to just focus on one exercise such as running or spinning. He explains that whilst endurance, strength, power and speed are important components of fitness, they are not the only things we should be focussing on as we get older. “Other factors such as balance, flexibility, coordination and motor control are all absolutely key in keeping us healthy and free from injury”. This is why in every session he incorporates yoga moves, weights, pushing, pulling, twisting, balance and flexibility exercises as well as more intense aerobic activity. “Variation of movement is incredibilty important," he explains, "For keeping motor control and keeping neural pathways in place. In turn, this will prevent common injuries as we get older.'
7. You will be less stressed
It may be the last thing on earth you feel like doing when you feel like your brain’s about to explode, but I know from experience how exercise can seriously reduce stress levels. I have tried meditation and yoga but for me, nothing, I repeat NOTHING de-stresses my mind and body like a good hard workout. Why is this? Well, exercise promotes production of neurohormones that are associated with improved cognitive function, better mood and learning. Exercise also forces the body’s physiological systems to all communicate more closely than normal: your cardiovascular system talks to your renal system, which talks to your muscular system, so everything is working more efficiently. No wonder, then that often exercising feels like a mind and body reboot.
8. Your To-Do list will be a breeze
After exercise I find that the things that were stressing me out before become a breeze. In fact research shows that the person who takes an hour out of their day to exercise is way more efficient, and ticks more off on their to-do list (and in a calmer fashion!) than the person who didn’t. It's those endorphins again.
9.You'll have better immunity
It is well known fact that regular, moderate exercise boosts the immune system. Exercise has been shown to increase the production of macrophages which are the cells that attack the bacteria which can cause upper respiratory diseases (such as colds and the flu). Also recent studies show that physiologically, immunity-promoting cells circulate through our system more rapidly when we exercise killing both viruses and bacteria. I have been literally amazed that since I started getting fit I have honestly suffered from only one sniffle. However, as Steve Mellor says, there is a fine line between exercising to boost immunity and over-exercising, which could cause a stress response which can in turn cause illness. “If you are training for an event such as a half marathon, you need to make sure that you are sleeping lots, are hydrated and eating well. Many elite athletes are prone to constant illness because they don’t rest enough," he explains.
10. Your sense of achievement will change your life
Having personally got fit from sofa level, I know all too well how amazing it feels to reach (or reach beyond) your goals. I also totally understand how a gym full of alien weights and weird machines can strike fear into those wishing they could embark on a fitness journey but aren’t sure how. The This Girl Can campaign which was launched last year revealed something we women know all too well - that many of us are too scared to exercise because of fear of judgement. My advice is to just start with something small - a slow jog (really slow), or something fun like a dance class or a bike ride - it doesn't matter what but just start. Exercising with friends can be fun, but if you'd rather exercise alone then do that (I much prefer exercising alone as I hate competition). It won’t be easy - getting fit is damn tough but it is worth every hard, gruelling second. Just remember that when the going gets tough, “It’s the hard that makes it great.”
Susannah is cycling round Ibiza to raise vital funds for Great Ormond Street this summer, please sponsor her here