Bel Mooney broadcaster
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My Fight To Get Fit

The Times, July 31st 2006 

 

I'm sitting in a bar with one of my oldest friends - sounding like a born-again Christian, proselytising the faith. She looks dazed. I've joined no wacky sect, but this is a conversion - hymning the praise of exercise, seeing the body as a temple, my personal trainer as high priestess…and many other tenets that would have seemed a perverse heresy to my old, sinful self. To this friend (who has, in the past joined me drinking and smoking until the small hours) the turn-around is astonishing - and yet she says she wants to join me on my crusade. Such is the power of evangelism.

Somewhere on the road in California a biker once said to me, 'Course- we're just a bag of fluid, know what I'm sayin?' He was pointing out the brutal truth that if you come off a motorcycle at speed your body has nothing to protect it. I remember thinking, No – I'm much more than a jumble of bones and blood. Yet leave aside the metaphysics of the soul, and he's right. The body may be a casing, but what a casing! How vulnerable, yet striding with ineffable power through the world. And when it fails, this body, through illness or age – what a source of sorrow! If there is such a thing as the soul, this is where it dwells. It's an extraordinary gift, the odd accumulation of limbs, the head waving on its stalk, and these wonderfully dextrous starfish at the ends of arms. All those books I've read, and yet I never understood all this before. Not until I began to exercise.

You can set your soul against sport – indeed, against any movement which isn't strictly necessary, apart from a late night bop at a party. The scrawny child nicknamed 'Four-eyes' who flails wildly in the rough direction of the rounders ball will be the last to be picked when the team-leaders choose. Standing there in line as classmates disappear one by one, you hear the audible groan because at last that poor team has to have you – the liability. You can be as clever as they come, but to be useless at games is a guarantee of unpopularity. Later – splashing about failing to swim, trying to hide from gym, elbow in the face in netball, horror of the hockey field, torture of tennis: the memory can still slice into an adult like me.

Still, by teenage years, us smart ones (the polarisation so unfair) fought back. We learned to pour scorn on the sweaty betties. I mean, you wouldn't want to be good at sport, would you? Some poor sap actually aspired to the school tennis team, whilst I was posing a black polo neck, reading Simone de Beauvoir, listening to Mingus and the Rolling Stones - convinced the good life was defined by sedentary pursuits like poetry and painting. Leaving school, I exulted, not because I would never have to do an exam again (university beckoned and anyway, I got high on exams) but that I would never again have to put on gym clothes. What had rejected me was comprehensively rejected in its turn.

When I married someone who liked sailing, tennis and walking, I made no attempt to join him – because I believed physical activity was beneath me. Photo By Robin Alison SmithIn our early thirties, on a weekend in the Brecons, I stumbled in fragile flat pumps, because I didn't think to kit myself out with suitable footwear. He was tolerant: shrugged with ironic good humour and did his thing. But one day when I was in my forties an enormous carton arrived at the door. 'What's this?' I asked, seeing the ominous words 'Health Rider' printed on the side. 'I got it for you; he said, 'You ought to get healthy.' So the (then) state-of-the-art workout machine stood in the corner of the bathroom, used by me to a pumping rock accompaniment from time to time, and then ignored – until the next flurry. Haul myself up with a hangover, to work out all on my own? Oh, please….

Into the fifties – and the Not-Exercising mind set is addictive. I read that exercise contributes to an increased production and release of endorphins, resulting in a sense of euphoria known as 'runner's high'; see my husband coming in from tennis looking shattered, watch groups of earnest ramblers hitting the fields - and think them all crazy. Stay up until 4am smoking long menthols, open yet more wine, pig out on Kettle Chips, slaughter the bottle of Limoncello, totter round parties with a fifth glass of champagne, discover the infinite delights of flavoured vodka and organic chocolate, and all the while hands-on with family, friends and work – this was my frantic lifestyle. My only regular exercise was vigorously rubbing any number of face and body creams into my skin. Then came the day I noticed that the hideously expensive Yves St Laurent goo I was massaging into my flabby thighs was called 'Total Fitness. 'What? With the absurdity, light entered the darkness.

When the horrifying national statistics on obesity are made manifest in the cringe-making sight of three enormous young women waddling along chomping on huge burgers, or the universal heatwave horror of exposed male and female flesh, you wonder how so much information can reach so few people, despite the plethora of news stories and features. Yet suddenly I saw that the ignorance and idleness I deplored in others was only an exaggerated form of what I displayed myself. The exaggerated mock-shudder and 'I hate exercise' ….how different is that from the pasty young fatty who can't live without McDonalds? This isn't question of mere weight (I've never been fat) but of fitness. It's about wanting to be healthy, respecting your body because you only inhabit it once. Then it's all over.

In search of enlightenment I went for a day at the Soma Centre in Kensington (which I reviewed last Saturday in Body and Soul) to assess my posture, diet, flexibility, skin etc – and something happened. Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself for being so – yes – thick about it all. Compared to my 82-year-old mother who has danced, keep-fitted and (recently) tai-chied her way through the years I possess the suppleness of a log.

'You should find a pilates teacher in Bath – and fast,' I was told by Carolan Brown, once personal trainer to Princess Diana. Then, a week later, came the final push. I went for a night to Lulworth Cove with my partner – who happens to be very much younger than I am. We walked down the steep cliff steps to the pebble beach at beautiful Durdle Door, and after a while it was time to leave. He skipped back up those steps to take photographs, and trailing slowly after him, puffing and blowing and stopping for rests, came this decrepit crone - who wore my face. It was – as they say – unsustainable.

So I found Debbie Robinson. A local Bath magazine ran an article on The Studio, her ladies-only gym - and that was the first lure. Let each gender have their space where they want it, I say, from secondary schools to gentlemen's clubs to gyms. I hated the idea of testosterone-pumped men showing off their six packs and lunchboxes just yards away – at least, not first thing in the morning. When I ventured into the alien world of Debbie's gym to check it out, my mistrust was allayed by the fact that there were one or two middle-aged ladies in baggy clothes working out, and looking happy with it. No Pineapple Studio pink lycra here – and I know it's true that older people are put off by the sexual glamour that has tended to surround the workout world. The Studio felt unthreatening, but any notion that I could wing this was dispelled when Debbie told me that if I wanted to hire her as a personal trainer I needed to take it seriously by coming twice a week. Otherwise it wouldn't be effective. So I paid upfront for ten sessions, not really believing I would stick it out. But I have. More than that – I love it. Even though it sometimes kills me.

'Come on, girl' says Debbie. She's standing next to me as I pedal like mad, and can't begin to know what it means to announce I've just done two miles. Just 3 months ago I'd have howled with derision at the thought of cycling to nowhere or straining to lift some weighty-bar-thing with my shins. Sometimes when we're working out I do laugh – silly as a schoolgirl - and so does she. We get on really well – talking about motorcycles and men - and that is the essential part of this exercise. It's not about paying upfront, but feeling you'll disappoint a really lovely person if you give up. 'Please don't put me on the cross trainer,' I plead, or 'Please let's do some boxing!' I may throw some mean punches (the best fun I've had in ages, working up a sweat and working out aggression) but Debbie calls the shots. Two months in, and I'm feeling like a different person. And like all converts, I want to encourage my peers to do the same.

A recent report in the medical journal 'Heart' showed that people who have been active all their lives are about 60% per cent less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease.

Still, the research team (from Heidelberg University) concluded that it isn't too late to start taking exercise in middle age. Apparently only about one third of men and one fifth of women in Bel Gets Fit England follow Government guidelines which recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (like brisk walking) most days a week. Be motivated by health, or rise from your bed of sloth because of vanity...it doesn't matter. But I look in the mirror already and see newly-toned upper arms instead of batwings, and it concentrates the mind most wonderfully.

It shocks me that so many people so much younger than I am let themselves go to seed when it seems we are all more psychologically aware than ever, and the mind-body connection cannot be ignored. It's a truism that the buzz from physical exercise can make you feel more sexy as well as happier. Show me a slightly glum middle aged lady and I'd say Don't put her on Prozac, prescribe her ten sessions with Debbie Robinson – or any other dedicated and jolly personal trainer. I can't help linking what I've discovered in the gym with the letters I get to my Wednesday advice page "Life and Other Issues.' So the twice-weekly workout becomes symbolic. Because many people feel stuck within their lives: stagnant and unmoving, terrified of change yet unhappy in the present. The idea of bodily movement can be seen as a metaphor for the flux of the universe – so exercising power over your body is a step towards gaining control of your mind. Carelessness about your body will be a symptom of mental slackness, indifference to the planet (those obese youngsters will chuck their polystyrene on the ground) and ultimate depression. But when you feel your heart pumping, and sweat break out, and that painful st-re-et-ch in the muscles – then you are reminded most powerfully that you are alive. You inhabit your body – finite it may be but it's yours, to be celebrated.

'Fit for purpose' has became an almost meaningless political catchphrase, but I've adapted it as a mantra to help my mental workout. This is the zen of exercise: my purpose is living, and therefore I must be fit.

Bel Mooney's fitness programme

2 miles on the treadmill at 4mph, 5%incline
leg extensions, 2 sets, 15 reps @ 10k
leg curls 2 sets, 15 reps @ 15k
OR lateral pull downs, chest presses etc.
rowing machine 1000 metres, 24-26 strokes pm
OR bike, 10 mins, 65-70 rpm
free weights – upper body bicep curls, front raises, lateral raises, overhead triceps
boxing 5-10 minutes (for cardio-vascular)
OR mat work – curls 3x15, plank, dorsal raises 3x15
Stretches – 10 minutes


 

 

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