Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘exercise

Every week a lovely lady comes to my house, relieves me of two purple notes, and spends an hour talking me through physical exercises which must look bizarre to passers by.

For months I have wanted to improve my fitness, but I needed someone who would be able to understand my joint hypermobility and co-ordination issues. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which causes all kinds of problems, but mainly means that my joints are too bendy (some people think of it as being “double jointed”), my knees dislocate easily, and I have a lot of pain. I am naturally limited in many ways (for example, how far I can walk) but also have to be careful, even within my limitations, not to do myself damage or aggrevate the pain. Naturally, this makes it very difficult for me to get moving or tone up.

I wasn’t sure about Pilates to begin with. I’d read that it was the only form of exercise that “people like me” can do safely, so I asked my physiotherapist about it and she dismissively said that there was no point; basic Pilates would be similar to the kind of homework she was setting for me anyway. But when the physio department discharged me, I was left without guidance, and no way to exercise. Being overweight, and knowing I was quite unfit, this was something I wanted to tackle. Yet in my mind I associated Pilates with Yoga and other hippy type, faddish things. I had visions of people pretending to be a tree. Google didn’t reassure, informing me that the exercises had names such as “The Clam”, and that I’d have to do some kind of special breathing so that everything came from my “core”. Still, it seemed the only option available to me, so I spotted an advert in a nearby Vegan cafe, and made the call – to a friendly lady called Alison Bray.

The first thing my new tutor did was talk to me, learn about my impairment, and borrow my hypermobility for physios book. So she really wanted to help, rather than just take my money. She listened and learned. That was a good start.

Alison is slowly guiding me through exercises, and I’m enjoying the work. It’s much more cerebral than aerobics or going jogging – I’m having to remember how to breathe, and consider exactly which muscles to move, in a series of precise actions. I focus on relaxing my body and only engaging the few parts that are necessary for each movement. At first I found this hard – so many parts of my body wanted to join in! But now I’m getting familiar with muscles I hadn’t even realised existed.

Each week I mention any joints that are playing up, and we carefully work around them, but there are physical benefits for my condition too. For example, I usually wake up with pain across my lower back. Yet if I lie on the floor and run through a few pelvic lifts and some pelvic curls, it’s not long before I feel scrunching in that area – and then the pain is relieved as my bones move into the correct alignment. I know that the problem will return the next night – but at least I now have a way of shaking it out of myself.

The special Pilates way of breathing wasn’t so strange after all – given that I used to play trumpet I am aware of different breathing techniques, and I am reasonably strong around the middle since I have always enjoyed sit-ups. Once I understood what was necessary – how to harness the muscles in my centre so that they can stabilise me for other movements – everything made sense.

Unexpectedly, the most important part for me has been in training not my muscles but my brain. For example, I was asked to undertake an exercise where I moved my arms back, as if pushing on an invisible wall. The object of the exercise was not to work my arms, but my lats. Initially I thought “oh, that’s odd, I can feel something moving in my back!” Yet today when I was given a similar but harder exercise, I was able to relax my arms and to consciously tell my lat muscles that they were the part that had to move. And it worked. Two months ago, I’d never heard of a “lat”!

One of the symptoms of my condition is poor proprioception; if I was to try and run, I’d lollop around like a drunken elephant, and do myself damage in the process. But through Pilates, I am learning to instruct my muscle groups more specifically, and consciously, and to have better physical self-awareness. I think in the long run this is going to be very valuable. My brain is laying down pathways every time I repeat a movement. Slowly, I am taking control of my body.

It doesn’t matter how many aches and pains I feel before my tutor arrives, I always feel better after she’s been. Pilates is a calm, precise form of exercise and it seems to stabilise my joints without pushing things too far, and to work my muscles without overtiring them. Even better, time with Alison is an hour spent away from my computer, using my brain in another way so I can forget the world outside.

Pilates turns out not to be a hippy thing at all, but a wonderful way of harnessing your mind and body. If you’re looking for a safe, cerebral way to exercise, just find a tutor and give it a try. Pilates is changing me for the better, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

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When I look in the mirror I don’t believe the figure smiling back at me. It’s only when caught unawares – such as at a service station toilet with full length mirror opposite the loo – that I am confronted with the fact that I have a spare tyre around my middle. Otherwise I would be blissfully unaware, and still expect to see a thin version of myself in mirrors. Although I’ve been fat for years now, it just doesn’t seem like me.

I know what size I am. I’ve been buying clothes of that size at M&S for years. But still when I unpack them, they seem too big. They fit me, but it always feels wrong.

I haven’t always been overweight. In my sixth form I was depressed and ate so little that my uniform had to be ordered in specially, a size 6. (For the men reading who have no idea what that translates to, think Victoria Beckham.) Through university I was a slightly more healthy 10 to 12. When I discovered eBay I was pleased to find that I was a normal, healthy size and I could fit into a range of gorgeous goth clothing!

Slowly, the weight has crept on. Mostly this came about once I started a full time job and could no longer attend gym classes several times a week. Exercise was on the backburner, but I thought having a full time job would keep me on my toes.

Once I recognised that I was overweight, I tried healthy eating and then even Alli, the weight loss pills that were promoted in every pharmacy when they became available over the counter earlier this year. The name is a misnomer (“friend” or “helper”) as any meal with more than 10-15 grams of fat resulted in what the manufacturers so nicely call “treatment conditions”. Basically if you don’t stick to a very low fat diet, you will end up farting oil – and nobody wants that. I stopped taking Alli, recognising that fat content wasn’t all of the story and that as a vegetarian, fat content in my diet was likely to conflict with Alli’s strict limits when I ate meals which were based around cheese – although it would still fall within the government’s “Eat well” recommendations. It seems that Alli helps you lose weight by terrifying you into not eating any food containing fat at all.


Flash in the mirror at a hotel, during 2010
Flash in the mirror at a hotel, during 2010.

There is an elephant in the room – my disability. I have a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and when I was diagnosed, the first thing my consultant ever told me was not to go running or swimming. Straight away I wondered how to exercise, but I’d known for years that my knee dislocates easily and other joints behave strangely, so I am very limited unless I have a low-impact programme. Now that my weight has crept up (taking me to a size 18) it is even harder to exercise safely and within my limits, as aerobics teachers are unwilling to support me, not understanding my impairment or unable to suggest safe alternatives to the routines in their class.

I still look in the mirror in disbelief, not knowing how best to dress to disguise my curves and jowl. Size 18 may be just two inches larger than the average British woman, but that doesn’t make it acceptable – it just means that there are lots of fat people out there! However, even though I do want to exercise, I am restricted by my impairment to doing just sit ups and “chairobics” – a form of exercise I have created which lets me stay sitting down. Hopefully it burns calories as much as aerobic exercise, but I have no way of knowing, and I can only manage 20 minutes at a time which is barely enough to get the blood pumping. Still, it’s fun to dance in my wheelchair at parties, and other people will boogie with me, so I must be doing something right! But at home it’s embarrassing – I would hate anyone to see me doing my chairobic “dancing” to Blur and Ian Dury as I try to work out. I set an alarm on my phone each day to remind me to exercise, yet four days out of five I am unable to physically manage it, having to rest my knees when I would rather work off some fat.

Although I am working on my weight, it seems I really need to tackle my self perception – after all I know which dress size I buy, so I should be used to seeing a fat person in the mirror – but I’m not sure how to address this. It seems to be harder than dieting. There may be many recommendations on how to diet and eat well, but I’ve yet to see any suggestions on how to retrain your brain! I still don’t recognise the body staring back at me.

So I’m trying to find a way to shift the kilos, but as I already eat fairly healthily it will be a long process – there are few things I can cut out for instant wins. (I’ve already swapped from sugary to diet drinks, from regular to reduced-fat cheeses and from mayonnaise to natural yoghurt.) To keep my spirits high I simply remember how little I recognise my body when it is undressed – the curves which should not be there – and then I am ready to aim for the figure with which I actually identify, similar to my early university days, while recognising I can never recapture my youth or reverse the progression of my impairment. For starters, perhaps I should be proud that I have stopped the gradual increase in my weight and seem to be slowly reversing the trend.

It may take a long time until I am able to squeeze into smaller dress sizes, perhaps many years, but hopefully over the long term I will be able to lose weight, respect myself for the effort, and move forward. For now, my old dresses are still in storage – but at least I haven’t given up and thrown them away altogether.