The Uselessness of the Long Distance Runner (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)

The date is Friday August 13th 2021 and it’s 7.12am. A ridiculous hour of the day, really. Our protagonist (me) is out running and over the course of the next 46 minutes he will run for 5.36 miles before feeling tired, getting confused and heading home. His confusion will haunt him moments after he drinks a chilled bottle of water in his kitchen. Why did he not run the extra 0.85 of a mile which would have led him to a distance of 6.21 miles, otherwise known as 10km? What an absolute knobhead! Never mind, in a few days he’ll go back out and run the full 10km.

Fast forward 22 days. It is Saturday 4th September and our protagonist hasn’t been on a run since the aforementioned Friday 13th August. He’s feeling frustrated. He’s feeling quite angry. He’s not enjoying this period of inactivity. He’s still a knobhead. And he feels useless.

On Friday 13th August, by about 7.15am I was regretting going out on my run. I had a sore shoulder brought on by a ridiculous combination of decorating my kitchen and a brainwave while coaching my Under 13 football team that told me, ‘Yes, Graham, go in goal for the shooting practice! Throw yourself around like a man possessed! Ignore your age and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done!’ Now, with every step taken, pain shudders right up my arm and through my sore shoulder. By the time I’ve registered a couple of miles I have pins and needles in my hand and my index finger has gone very cold. Ignoring the signs that this could be a stroke or the beginnings of a heart attack, I run on. I really am a knobh…well, you know the rest.

For anyone feeling worried, don’t. I didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack. But I did end my run in a lot of pain. But don’t worry, twenty days later I got some help. Between that time and the end of my run I googled the problem and settled on the fact that I’d managed to damage a nerve somewhere between my shoulder and my chest. Despite the intense pain, a bit of self diagnosis told me that it would heal itself and that in the meantime I should just take Ibuprofen. I also decided that continuing to decorate would help.

I realise now that I am still a good 8 years short of qualifying to be a doctor and that as a healer I make a good knobhead.

It has hurt me to have to avoid running and my reluctance to seek medical help – coupled with the amount of time it takes to actually get medical help post Covid and using our surgery’s new phone system – will subsequently cost me more time. I will lose fitness and my burgeoning belly will continue to burge. Or grow.

By the time I got medical help – two days ago at the time of writing – it turned out my diagnosis was right, but that I can’t get a physio appointment for another four days. And that will also be over the phone, so the physio’s healing hands will have to be very special indeed. In the meantime, I feel horrible.

I think I’ve made myself worse with comfort eating too. We went away to Scarborough for a few days and then Newcastle after that meaning five whole days of eating out and I didn’t even attempt to hold back and think healthily. ‘Are you having a pudding?’ quickly became not only a rhetorical question, but a stupid one too.

At home, what with it being the summer holidays, I’ve succumbed to a policy of ‘a beer a night’, which although that’s not heavy drinking, is a lot more than my usual. I’ve also relapsed in my dangerous crisps and chocolate addiction, making any trip to Home Bargains or B&Ms into an actual expedition. While I haven’t exactly piled the weight on – no surprise if you know me – this has still left me out of shape.

Having sought medical help and got my hands on some prescription pain killers and a telephone conversation with a physio, this morning brought another setback. Look away now if you’re young, fit and healthy. The ease with which this type of thing can happen in middle age might be a bit of a shock.

I was out in the supermarket, doing our weekly shop and had crouched down to scrutinise the very bottom row of school shirts. You’d be surprised at the rarity of sized 12-13 short sleeved white shirts in the George at Asda uniform section. Thus, I really had to peer deep and low to find what I wanted. But just before I located it I had an almighty spasm of pain through my lower back. I couldn’t move, was worried I might cry in front of some mums and toddlers – again – and it took my about 10 seconds to realise that I was holding my breath. When I straightened up to a standing position, the pain increased.

This will undoubtedly cost me more time away from running as I’ve struggled with my back for years. It once went completely as I arrived at work and put the handbrake on in the car! However, since getting fitter and stronger with the amount of exercise I got through in lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, it hadn’t been much of a problem at all.

Running has been an excellent help to my somewhat surprisingly fragile mental health over the last year or so. I’ve found this last year tough for a number of reasons, but whenever I’ve been able to go out running I’ve felt focused and free of any number of problems. I’ve also felt fitter and stronger and the distances run and the times achieved have been a real boost, mentally. Like I say, it has hurt not being able to run.

While I’m running I am almost forced to think things through. At my age, this is a good thing as it also allows me to take focus away from how much my body hurts! But it’s also an opportunity that I’m really pleased to be able to take. Other than traffic or people on pavements, I have little else to occupy my mind and I know that I can make decisions during this hour or so; I can solve problems.

Going out for a run means that I can think. I have time to think ‘things’ through, whatever they might be, and often by the time I’m back home I just feel a great deal lighter, so to speak. I head out, fresh faced and often feeling a bit weighed down by what life happens to be throwing at me and by the time I return I’m red-faced and sweaty, but visibly happier, even if I look like I might just be about to collapse.

Three weeks into my enforced rest, and only just back at work for a new academic year, and I’m really feeling tired and more than a little bit troubled by it all. Not being able to run is just horrible. Sometimes, I might allow myself to think that a rest might be nice, but 99% of the time I’ll force myself to get out and go for a run, setting a minimum target and then pushing really hard to eclipse it. I always feel better afterwards. Being injured like this has taken that away and it’s really not pleasant.

I’m hoping that within a fortnight at most I’ll be able to get back out again and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run far enough and for long enough to have a good old think! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my telephone physio appointment, which promises to be a whole new experience and hopefully the thing that starts putting stuff right!

The uselessness of the long distance runner is not a feeling I’m enjoying.

Poetry Blog – ‘Early Morning Run’

If you’ve read the blog before or are a regular reader (I don’t know if I actually have regular readers, but there you go…) you might already know that I’m a big fan of running. I’d been a sporadic runner for most of my life until the first period of lockdown when I found the time to really work on my fitness and found myself running on a far more regular basis.

In the past, I’ve dabbled with early morning runs. I’ve always thought they were a good idea and it doesn’t particularly bother me that I have to get out of bed early. I’ve never been one for having a lie in and although I wouldn’t call myself a morning person, I can just about function at that time of day. However, I’ve never taken early morning running this seriously before. In the past I think I’ve just been of the view that getting out of bed and doing a bit is enough. Nowadays – probably because I’ve got myself a lot fitter – I take things more seriously.

So since early November last year I’ve been getting up before 7am every Sunday and heading out for a run. My wife thinks I might be going mad or perhaps having some kind of mid-life crisis, but I’m definitely not! I’m just enjoying running. I don’t think I’ve ever ran this early before, but it’s enabled me to experience quite a lot of brilliant things. I’ve ran along long straight roads with barely a vehicle in sight and watched as the sun comes up. I’ve been able to start my day in absolute solitude, gathering my thoughts and just feeling completely and utterly relaxed. I’m calm while running, rather than panicking about how I’m feeling, whether I’d be able to finish, the pain in a muscle etc. And I’ve had time to think, which has helped me a lot with things that I want to write about. I’ll be taking a dictaphone out with me soon!

With all the solitude, the calm, the energised feelings I’ve had after running, it felt obvious to write a poem about my early morning runs. I’d even been taking photos to help me remember certain things. And so, I sat down and wrote some notes. Sometimes these turn into lines from a poem, other times they just stay as bullet points, until I get the urge to sit and write the actual poem. In the case of this poem, I wrote minimal notes and spent a chunk of one Sunday morning, post run, just writing the poem. There were a few bits scribbled out, I suppose as part of a drafting process, but in the main this was a poem that was written as a first draft. Maybe that says something about my enthusiasm for the subject matter…

Early Morning Run

Although a pre-7am alarm on a Sunday is very much the stuff of nightmares, it’s done now. There’s no going back. I roll from under the covers and stumble like a broken robot across the blackness of the bedroom to halt the alarm, then, after a brief flirtation with the cold tap to awaken my senses, I’m downstairs, my body protesting as I stretch. Finally, when there’s nothing left to delay me, I leave the relative warmth behind.

Outside, a pattering against nearby leaves alerts me to the drizzle. My heart sinks slightly, but I turn and run. As I climb the first hill, the early morning fog rolls down at me. I push on, my bare arms and legs slowly adjusting to the biting cold and by the top, although catching my breath, I’m into my stride.

The centre of town is a place for ghosts, only the gentle pad of my feet on concrete can be heard and there’s only me to be seen. The sun fights a losing battle with the fog as I plod on and the only light to be seen belongs to the occasional cars of shift workers heading for warmth. I afford myself a few quiet words of encouragement, tell myself it won’t be long before I’m in their shoes.

On the outskirts of town I run on the empty road, giving up my territory every so often as early morning haulage thunders past and shakes the pavement. I relax, the only soul for miles around, alone with my thoughts and the constant voice in my head offering platitudes, encouragement, advice. Shoulders back, straighten out, head up, lengthen your stride, keep going.

Further down the road, as I tire, a shiftworker emerges like a high viz beacon and we exchange nods, perhaps each wondering which of us has made the worse decision on this cold Sunday morning. And then, the long downward stretch that signals my way home claws its way from the grasp of the fog and I quicken my pace, as if acting on instinct.

A lone gull lands upon a lampost above my head, like some kind of vulture, but it’s too late. I’m gritting my teeth, summoning last reserves of strength and fighting fatigue; this scavenger will have to wait. I open up my stride as best I can and drive for my finishing line.

Finally, I’m home and fumbling for a key with which to silently open the door in order not to wake my sleeping loved ones. Inside, I move to the kitchen, gulp down water, gorge on fruit and then stretch, thankful to be back, my body aching, but my mind cleansed.

Just a brief explanation of a few things in the poem. The line about stumbling across our bedroom ‘like a broken robot’ is me trying to communicate just how tired I feel when I wake up. There are days when my legs just don’t seem to work and the stiffness means my steps are ragged to say the least. It fascinates me that within about twenty minutes, I’ll be running at pace up a hill! Later on in the stanza I mention that ‘my body protests’ at stretches. I know I should warm up, but I seriously don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m some kind of ‘proper’ runner!

In the fourth stanza, I mention the voice in my head. that might not be wholly truthful. Often I’m actually talking to myself while out running. While there are times when I thoroughly enjoy it and feel totally strong, there are more when I can’t work out why I’m working out, so to speak. And so, often I’ll have a little chat to myself and tell myself that things aren’t that bad or try to kid myself on that it’s all in my head and that my legs are, in fact, strong.

In the fifth stanza I mention a long downward stretch. I’d like to point out that while it’s long, it is barely downward at all and that some of it means going back uphill. I almost changed the poem at the point as I couldn’t stand people thinking that a huge chunk of my run is down a big, steep hill. It’s not. But it’s downhill enough for me to pick up the pace!

The gull in the sixth stanza genuinely frightened me. At first, out of the corner of my eye, I genuinely believed that it was a bird of prey and that it might just take a swoop at me. Seeing it was a gull was a relief, but I still looked at its massive beak and felt a bit of trepidation!

Let me know what you think in the comments. I hope you enjoyed the poem as much as I frequently tell myself I like my early morning runs!

Ten Things that Lockdown Exercise Has Taught Me

Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a remarkable year so far. Sure, its story can be summed up neatly with just two chapter headings – COVID-19 and Lockdown – but really that’s what has made it so remarkable.

Courtesy of a global pandemic lots of us have been given a time to reflect and learn. To slow down. I’ve written about the positive side of lockdown before and, as such acknowledged the tragedy of the losses suffered around the globe. While we’ve been locked down, people have fallen victim to a silent killer, while others have put their own lives on the line in order to help. We’ve been living through life-changing times, that’s for sure.

For me, despite finding the threat of the virus quite terrifying and finding the isolation from work both heart-breaking and mind numbingly dull, lockdown has been a positive process. The fear I’ve felt has made me spend more time in touch with my family – I have rung my elderly parents every few days, a great improvement on my usual shameful record of keeping in touch. I’ve been in regular touch with my sister and I’ve been forced to spend more quality time with my immediate family and in turn thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore, I’ve written more, connected with friends, relaxed more and frankly, transformed my garden!

By far my favourite pastime in lockdown has been exercising. From the off I’d decided that if there was a likelihood of contracting the virus, I was going to be as fit and strong as possible in order to fight it. A combination of asthma and a heart problem left me vulnerable to COVID and having spent time in hospital in the recent past frightened that this was it, I wasn’t going to go and die from what some were describing as the flu! So I began to exercise.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself over these lockdown months. Exercise has changed me. Don’t get me wrong, I was fit enough to begin with, especially for a man of my vintage, but now, I’m very much Middleagefanclub 2.0!

Here are ten things I’ve learnt about myself via lockdown exercise.

  1. I have abs, I want better abs and I finally understand the fuss about abs! That’s a lot of abs! I can’t help feeling enthusiastic about this though. I’ve spent my whole life learning to be comfortable with my slim build; perilously thin arms and pipe cleaner legs, not to mention my pot belly, developed over the last few years of my forties. And when my wife unearthed a picture of me in my twenties, emerging from a loch in Scotland a la a skinny, lanky Daniel Craig in just swimming shorts but sporting an actual six pack I realised that I’d been taking little or no care of my body for years. Now though, via a daily exercise workout with Joe Wicks on Youtube (70+ workouts and counting) and daily walks (sometimes more than one) I’ve found that, at the grand old age of 48, my body has changed. As well as the abs, I have muscles in my legs (visible ones), pecs (that’s a chest to the uninitiated) and discernable biceps! In short, I’ve learnt that with dedication and hard work my body is far, far stronger than ever before! Don’t get me wrong, I’m still slim, but I’m no longer a stick insect with a belly!
  2. I can exercise through the pain. I’ve always been injury prone. I think being tall and thin has made me fairly fragile, although I’ve never actually broken a bone, and so I’ve always picked up niggling muscle injuries quite easily. I’ve had a couple of serious ligament injuries to my knee and ankle along the way and they say that your body is never quite the same after that type of thing. So it was almost inevitable that when I began to exercise seriously, that something had to give. Needless to say that after a few weeks there was a ‘pop’ in my groin, followed by a bit of a tear in my thigh a week later and then about 5 weeks in my back went. However, I’ve never enjoyed exercising as much as I have during lockdown and so, I was determined to carry on. I was doing the #PEWithJoe workouts as provided every morning of lockdown by Joe Wicks and as such was just determined to carry on, such was my enthusiasm for being there and doing every workout, every morning. It’s meant applying a great deal of Voltarol to my back and mainlining Ibuprofen (other ailment treatments are available) but I’ve managed to just keep going. I’ve even found that whatever pain I’m in when I wake up, once I’m exercising and properly stretched it eases. I might not seem much, but after a lifetime of feeling like I should rest up because of injury, I’m now completely attuned to simply working through the pain.
  3. I have little shame and a lot less ago. For far too long in my life I’ve been too cool for school. When others have dived in and enjoyed themselves immensely, I’ve backed off for fear of losing face. Well, not any more…at least where exercise is concerned anyway. There’s still no chance of me doing dressing up, regardless of the charity or acting in any staff plays – work colleagues, Laura, Gemma, Emmas, et al take note! However, while exercising in lockdown I have found myself doing all sorts of ridiculous things in the name of fitness. I’ve walked like a duck to exercise my quads, done bunny hops, Pikachus and Joeys for cardio and frog jumps and bear crawls just because someone has told me it’ll do me good! And when Joe Wicks has told me to put my hands up like I’ve got bunny ears or to imagine I’m a kangaroo holding a joey in my pouch, I’ve done it and not worried a jot about who might be able to see. My neighbours and postman may well have seen a very different side to me at some point and I have to say that I don’t care!
  4. I still don’t like fancy dress. A man has limits! Friday is Fancy Dress day in my new exercise world and while thousands across the world have joined in, I haven’t budged. While Joe Wicks jumps around dressed as a panda or Spiderman, I’m keeping up my own good work in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m happy to run around the town I live with a face resembling a damp plum tomato, but there’s no chance that I’ll be dressing up like one. I even considered an alice band when my hair was particularly long, knowing full well that any number of friends could walk or drive past, but it’s a long stretch from that to running 5km dressed like a superhero! However evangelical I might get about exercise, there’s a very slim chance that I’ll ever resort to fancy dress. Fitness is important, but dignity more so!
  5. There’s no shame in running downhill! I’ve lived in my present home for over 20 years now and tried to go out running at times times during many of those years. However, where we live is quite hilly. Indeed at the end of my street there’s a main road up a big hill. For years I told myself that I always had to start my runs by heading up the hill. And for years I wondered why my first kilometre of those runs was invariably slow! I’d dread running up the hill, knowing that by the time I reached the top my legs would be like jelly and I’d only really be starting my run. That’s all changed during lockdown. I’ve taken to doing a workout and then heading out for a run a couple of times a week. But I decided to be fair to myself. Thus, on my first run, I ignored heading upwards and ran a little way down the hill, through a local park until I reached a nice flat stretch. It meant that by the time I’d reached my first climb I’d already ran a kilometre and was completely into my rhythm and feeling good. Lo and behold, it’s really helped! I’ve found that I’m steadily building up my distance and retaining some speed, while getting ever fitter and really enjoying my running. There really is no shame in running down the hill – even if it is for a few hundred yards. I only wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and learnt this twenty years ago!
  6. I really like order. In order to give a sense of variation to his workouts, Mr. Wicks has introduced a few gimmicks. The intention here is to add an element of chance or jeopardy if you like, to the workouts. Personally, I have all the jeopardy I need with the fact that my back might just ‘ping’ at any moment, but given that over 100,000 households are listening most days, I’m guessing any complaint would fall on deaf ears! So, rather than letting us know exactly what we’re going to be subjected to, he’s added in a sense of the unknown. The unknown has so far come in the form of a spinning wheel that contains the name of lots of exercises that we could do, two giant dice and also some over-sized playing cards that are used in a game of higher or lower. If I’m honest, I don’t mind the cards at all, simply because there’s always a visible list of the exercise options, so I sort of know what’s coming. There’s order. I despise the wheel. Hate it with a passion. It never seems to roll true and is forever landing on the same exercise, meaning that whatever part of my body is taking the strain will be a quivering wreck by the time the wheel has spun and landed on the same thing three times in succession. Without a doubt, I’m far, far happier when Joe just tells me what’s coming next!
  7. Daily family walks will inevitably be punctuated by arguments. On all but about five days since the start of lockdown, we’ve been out for a walk around our local area, as a family. We’ve walked for miles and miles, which to us adults seems like a thing of wonder. However, to our children, it’s the dullest thing ever. It’s guaranteed to sour at least one of their moods and, given that my children are very much of the opinion that we all need to hear what they’re feeling at any given time, their disapproval will be voiced. Cue arguments! I’ve often said that we provide a traveling soap opera for anyone within hearing distance when we’re out and about, but I daresay there are people in houses around where we live who have counted down the minutes until we pass again in the early evening. It seems to be a tailor-made opportunity for my children to have a good moan or offer an unwanted opinion. Me? I tend to just walk at the back, lips firmly shut, but even then there have been times when I can’t help but join in. Who knew a walk could be so eventful?
  8. I still prefer to exercise without a soundtrack. While I’ve experimented with running with my iPod on, I’ve never really found it adds anything to the way I feel. More than anything, I worry about not hearing traffic and crossing a road where I then get knocked over! While I’m out running I like my wits about me and I find I can concentrate and focus a great deal better without music in my ears. I wouldn’t say that there’s any kind of zen thing going on, but I find the silence helps me to think. And while I’m thinking – maybe weighing up a decision that’s got to be made – I’m not feeling the heaviness in my legs or the tightness in my chest. My thoughts don’t wander, so there’s no danger of worrying about anything asthma-related and more to the point, I’m no longer prone to the little voice in my head telling me I’ve gone far enough and should stop! I think even with music on I’d be telling myself just to get to the end of a particular song and then turn round and walk home! I’m definitely mentally stronger when it’s just me and the outdoors. I’ve found the same with working out. While using YouTube to exercise there are mornings where the instructor plays music and I’m never at my best when it’s being played. Just tell me what to do, let me watch the clock and I’ll be fine!
  9. I’ll get stuck in, whatever the weather. Just this morning, post-workout, I was out for the walk that serves as a warm down. It was fairly cold and the drizzle was relentless. But we were still out and about. And this has been the case throughout lockdown. While in the past I might not have gone out for a run because it was blowing a gale or raining, nowadays I don’t give it a second thought. Similarly, when it’s been very hot, I’ve made the effort to get out and run. It’s definitely the right approach and it’s definitely making me fitter, stronger, and healthier.
  10. I’m a terrible judge of people. I owe Joe Wicks an apology. For years he’s just been a bloke with silly hair and I mildly amusing voice. Then, when I joined in with his workouts I initially found myself judging him a bit more. Now, 15 weeks or so in, I’ve come to realise that he’s alright. He seems to have similar sense of humour to me – he’s a big fan of Alan Partridge – and like me he’s devoted to his family. I still can’t live his lack of taste in music, but I’ve learnt a valuable lesson. Just because you’re regularly clad in lycra, are unashamed about showing off your sculpted body and are vocal about your love of exercise and healthy eating, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Sorry Joe. And apologies to every runner or gym goer I’ve ever sneered at around where we live.

So there we go. Not only have I got fitter, but I’ve learnt a few things about myself. I’d love to know how others have filled their time during lockdown or maybe even what you feel you’ve learnt about yourself. Let me know in the comments.

How lockdown helped me contract the exercise bug.

It started, like many things do, with an idea that felt like a bit of a dream, especially given the chaos that was about to erupt. It turned out however, that one particular kind of chaos would be all of my own making. The chaos brought about by a gradual obsession with exercise. While avoiding the virus, I’ve caught the exercise bug.

Initially isolated and then days later placed in lockdown, I was intent on going for a run every few days. That was it; simple. Just the odd run to make myself feel a little bit better, gather my thoughts and cling on to my sanity. I hadn’t ran for a while – a combination of a busy schedule and the usual winter health issues taking their toll. Now, with possibly a huge amount of time on my hands I was going to exploit it and gradually get fit.

However, almost before the plan was hatched tendonitis in my achilles stopped me in my running tracks and so I resorted to walking. Easier on the body. On my first day of isolation, bored, determined to get exercise and feeling down about the fact that I couldn’t go to work, I walked for miles. My watch told me that by the end of the day I’d done just over 23,500 steps. My head told me I needed to calm down! The next day, a Thursday, I’d toned it down a bit and walked a little over 18,000, but this was still a ridiculous amount and I knew at the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.

By the time Friday rolled around the Prime Minister was announcing that the country was going into lockdown and that schools would be closing. This would mean another change of plan. We were to be allowed out only for one exercise session per day and in my case that would have to be taken with the rest of my family. There would be no more walking around for hours. Instead, there would be a daily walk for an hour, close to home and spent in the midst of family bickering, most likely prompted by one of my children while almost certainly involving the other one and requiring one or both adults to referee. It seemed that the part of me that was going to get the most exercise would be my jaw and I could wave goodbye to any peace and quiet. This virus was going to test both my physical and metal health!

On the same day I made what could be a life-changing discovery. Perhaps ‘life-changing’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely changed things for me, so you know, go along with my positivity here! I’ve already blogged a bit about this and also written a poem inspired by it as well, but in terms of this blog, it needs another mention. Or a paragraph or two.

Joe Wicks, otherwise known as The Body Coach, announced to the nation that as part of the home schooling effort in the UK he’d be taking a PE class via YouTube every morning from 9am. After a little hesitation I jumped in. I was going to have to home school my son anyway and so, #PEWithJoeWicks would become the start to our day. I never imagined I’d get so involved!

Since that first Monday I’ve taken part in the workout every day. As I write I’ve done 30 workouts, taking the weekends to rest. I’ve tried hard to be as strict as possible with the workouts too. Each exercise is done in 30 second bursts and so I make sure that I’m doing everything with maximum effort and not slacking off for the last few seconds in order to get an extended break in between. It would be easy at my age to just motor through things at half pace, blaming wear and tear on the joints and claiming to be looking after myself, but given that this may well represent the most dynamic I’m going to get in any given day, I’ve been making sure that I put in a lot of effort.

The exercises range from easy things like jogging on the spot or throwing 30 seconds worth of imaginary punches right through to planking, squat jumps and old school favourites like burpees. There’s also an element of fun brought into it, because after all, this is meant to be a kids’ PE lesson. And obviously fun is where I come into my own. Ahem.

It’s easy to see how Joe Wicks has made his fortune through exercise. Even when you take away the looks, the hair and the perfectly sculpted abs, there’s a lot left to admire. He’s enthusiasm personified for a start. Even when he’s telling you how sweaty and worn out he is he’ll be letting you know in the next breath how much he’s enjoying himself. And because he’s having fun, invariably we are too. It’s a relentless mantra – exercise is great, this is doing you good, stay positive! And if you’d told me before I’d tried it that I’d be smiling along with someone telling me this kind of thing and actually believing it as well, I’d have asked if you’d ever met me before. Exercise as fun wasn’t supposed to be my thing.

The actual exercises themselves are made fun too, although I’m never 100% convinced my legs are in agreement. When I’m doing kangaroo jumps while pretending to carry my imaginary joey or doing bunny hops with my hands on top of my head to represent my bunny ears, I must be enjoying it otherwise there’s no way in the world I’d bother with these extra details! My son Dylan, my regular exercise partner, certainly loves it as he’s often adding sound effects in as he goes! And we haven’t even got onto squats that lead into jumps where you shout out ‘Pikachu’ at its climax.

Like a lot of other people on lockdown I’ve stopped worrying about style and how I’m dressed. Nowadays, wearing jeans is classed as dressing up. I blame Joe Wicks as well. And while we’re on the subject I’ll be cutting my own hair soon as well, but I digress.

We do #PEWithJoe every morning at 9am. After that we continue our warm-down in the back garden with a little bit of football and by the time we finish that it’s usually around 10am. Then I’ll get changed. And this is where my style lockdown comes in. It just seems pointless changing out of shorts and some form of exercise top to get into jeans and maybe a t-shirt or a shirt. I know that I’ll be back out exercising or in the garden at some point during the day. And so, nowadays I just sling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, usually the type of thing that I wear for running. In other words, I’m almost permanently dressed in leisure wear these days. It’s bad enough that I’ve not worn a suit, a formal shirt or a tie in around a month due to not being in at work, but now, even a pair of jeans feels unnecessary. It seems like some form of exercise is always lurking just around the corner.

Our daily exercise isn’t just limited to a half hour workout in the morning though. Oh no, we’re going for gold in our house. Every day – and I mean every day – we subject ourselves to a three mile walk. Socially distant, of course, and just around the locality that we live in, but still it’s a daily three miles.

As a middle aged man three miles a day is quite the big ask. I’m 48 years old for goodness sakes! Less than 2 years ago I had heart surgery! But let’s trail ourselves around the local area for three miles per day. That’s over 20 miles a week!

To be fair, there are times when I love it. Everything feels good and it’s fantastic to be out in the fresh air. The weather has helped too. In our part of the U.K. we’ve been having wonderful weather – beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies – and so, to be out walking in it has been fantastic. But sadly, I’m getting no younger. For every night where I’m enjoying myself, there’s one where I am nothing short of knackered. We live in quite a hilly area and there are times, when stood at the bottom of an enormous hill, and my legs are like jelly before we’ve even moved. In my head I’m ranting – ‘Why the **** are we doing this?’ – but outwardly I’m smiling and insisting that everything’s fine and that I must have just overdone things earlier in the day. I’ve never failed to complete the distance, but I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve questioned my sanity! Still, at least I’m in good shape. Especially for a man of my now advancing years!

I know that the exercise bug has truly taken hold for another reason as well. Despite sticking strictly to lockdown conditions, I must admit that on several occasions recently I’ve considered getting up really early and sneaking out for a run. I stress that I haven’t done it, but it still feels like such a good idea. I imagine there’d be no one about, which in terms of running for me, is a really good thing. You see, I have a tendency to attract the attention of small dogs and on more than a few occasions have tumbled over them as they’ve jumped up at me. The last time saw me literally somersaulting through the air and left me battered and bruised, so avoiding that particular type of thing has real appeal. But as much as more exercise is a temptation, I know I’ll be avoiding it. Better to be slightly less fit than catch the virus because of my own stupidity. Or take a tumble while trying to avoid yappy dogs.

So lockdown, despite its very obvious drawbacks has had its benefits. I’ve become more obsessed than ever with keeping an eye on my steps via my watch and making sure I’m as active as possible, but boy am I fit! No doubt the eventual return to work will make the kind of exercise I’m doing regularly almost an impossibility, but for now I’m going to keep on acting like I’m preparing for some kind of middle-age Olympics!

 

Fighting the flab – my battle with ‘Dad bod’!

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So many temptations with which to add to that dad bod!

As a young man I never dreamed I’d have any kind of problem with ‘body image’. I’d grown up a skinny kid, partly down to health problems and partly down to being a fussy eater who was indulged by a somewhat doting mother. I was active and sporty, meaning that I struggled to gain weight as I was always on the move. Therefore, as the possessor of barely any noticeable muscle at all this led to sometimes merciless name-calling and cruel comments about my size. They’d call it bullying nowadays, but at my rough comprehensive school it was just a way of life. Some people would exploit any weakness that they detected and unfortunately, my lack of bulk and legs that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a passing flamingo, were often a target, especially as I got older and everybody else filled out. As I got older and stayed relatively small those that grew to be more of an adult size would find fun in pushing me around. Still though, it didn’t particularly bother me and I was never unable to function as a result of it.

However, it must have been something that sat there, dormant, waiting for its chance as in adult life it became a problem that would hold me back. Not in a terribly debilitating way, but in a self-conscious sort of way. I have a seven inch scar down my chest which stopped me from removing my shirt on sunny days. I’m hardly well built either, which made t-shirts my friends at all times! As previously referred to, I also have legs that would look better on certain types of wildlife, meaning that shorts were often in, well, short supply I suppose.

The notion of ‘body image’ however, seems to be a relatively recent thing and at the risk of sounding like my dad, they didn’t have it when I was younger. I was always conscious of my size or of my body, but it was just something else to deal with. I never thought to talk to anyone about it, let alone write anything down. Until I was around 15 I was only just over 5ft in height as well, so bodywise I had literally nothing going for me save for a Hollywood smile and an earlier than most bumfluff ‘tache!

For a short while I joined a gym in the hope that lifting weights and exercising in different ways would help me to bulk up. It didn’t and more to the point it bored me and ended with me feeling even more self conscious. After a while I just accepted what I was and eventually (and I really mean eventually) when girls started taking an interest I began to feel a little more confident in myself. I could make people laugh and hold the interest of at least some girls; I didn’t feel the need to lift heavy weights, wear vests and sweat like a stallion. But I still didn’t like my body. The skinny legs, the stick-like arms, the scar on the chest…I didn’t particularly feel manly. Add to this the fact that one side of my ribs juts out at the bottom as a result of not being put back together properly after my heart operation – surgery wasn’t as precise a science in the 70s – and you begin to feel like you should have been picked up by the circus at some point.

University helped me to love myself a little bit more (not like that; stop sniggering). Maybe it was being away from some of the same people I’d been around for years who’d possibly gotten used to their own clever banter and didn’t feel that it could possibly be hurtful. My dad, for instance, was forever mocking my legs – if I played football in shorts he’d tell me to put my legs away because – and I quote – ‘there’s a spuggy up there feeding young ‘uns. She’ll think there’s two worms down here.’ Classic. No, really, hilarious. Especially when it’s repeated three or four times a week. Maybe it was the sudden independence that somehow boosted my confidence or maybe it was the fact that I was now around a foot taller and at least felt I finally had something going for me. Whatever it was, those three years made me feel a lot better about myself in terms of my body. I simply wasn’t mocked anymore and as a result I felt at least a little bit of confidence.

The issue of body confidence has never gone away though. And annoyingly, with the onset of middle age it feels like it’s getting worse. I think the young people call it a dad  bod, but whatever it is, it’s not particularly comfortable.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m any kind of mess. But moving into my forties, and speeding towards my fifties has definitely brought plenty of unexpected body issues to go alongside the ones that I’ve carried around since my teens. Actually they’re more irritations than issues, but still, they bother me enough to actually spend time thinking about them. And that’s quite a surprise to me.

The biggest body irritant has to be my belly. I’ve never been in possession of a six-pack; not a proper one, anyway. In my early twenties, when I played football and ran a lot more often there was a lot less flab and some definite abs and even now I don’t exactly look like I might be 7 months pregnant. But there is a belly. And, try as I might to reason with myself about age, lifestyle and the stress of work, it really bothers me. Having spent most of my life worrying about being underweight I never thought I’d have a belly, especially as I’m still probably underweight! But it’s definitely there. And because it’s so unexpected I think I overplay its importance and worry about it far more than is healthy or even reasonable.

Nowadays, for the style conscious middle aged man, having a belly is a bit of problem whether it bothers you or not. You see, clothes are a lot closer fitting. Everything you look at is available in ‘slim fit’ and some even in ‘skinny’ fit. Style wise this is great. I can remember the 80s and 90s when clothes would literally hang off me and so now, when things actually fit properly, it’s much better. But things fit everywhere. So any slim fitting t-shirts that I might buy are sure to hug. But they can’t hug my belly. Not enough to actually hug it away. And so I find myself feeling self conscious a lot more. About four months ago my wife bought me an expensive compression top which I could wear while out running, but when I put it on I was appalled. It’s incredibly tight fitting, but despite its quality it couldn’t contain my belly and looking at myself in the mirror, I felt ridiculous. Needless to say it went back in the wardrobe and it’s only appeared in public in the last week or so.

In truth, I find that I try to hold my stomach in these days. On holiday, or if we go swimming it’s a conscious decision. While I have no real problem with the scar on my chest anymore, I now feel self conscious about a paunch that my wife assures me isn’t really there. I find myself walking around just that little bit more tense and sucking in the belly. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m not kidding myself that women (or men, the cheeky devils) may still cast a glance in my direction. But I do try to hold my belly in when I remember. I don’t want to feel like I’m being judged and I don’t want to feel like my nearest and dearest are quietly thinking, ‘he’s let himself go’.

On the belly front I’ve tried various things to help out. Sit ups, weights, running, walking, cutting back on certain foods like chocolate, crisps and beer, but I simply don’t seem to have the long term will power to make a difference. When I was exercising regularly and for a more significant and sustained amount of time it did make a difference and you could actually see the beginnings of a six-pack. But nobody’s impressed by a two-pack, least of all because actually divulging such information makes it sound like all you’re actually doing is informing them that you’ve got testicles. Even something as simple as a mere glance at my name tells you that there’s a fair chance I’ve got them anyway. And so, the exercise and the food sacrifice went south…a little bit like my belly.

With body image in mind, I’m currently trying to be much more disciplined about what I eat and drink. As lots of you will be aware I had a health scare last year and while I wouldn’t say it had a profound effect, it did make me think about my choices in terms of food and exercise. I’ve never been a big drinker, but for the last 6 months or so I’ve managed to restrict beer consumption to at the most 3 times a week. And even then it’s very rare that I’ll ever have more than one drink.

I’ve almost completely cut out crisps, which have always been my nemesis in terms of fighting the flab. Crisps have always had a heroin-like pull on me and I could eat them all day and still not have had enough. Even the thought of them makes me kind of wistful! The box of chocolate biscuits that used to reside in my desk draw at work has also now gone and has been replaced by two bananas a day. And even as I type I’m munching on my most recent dietary addition – a small daily tub containing pumpkin seeds, cashews and macadamia nuts.

But am I only kidding myself? Despite my size I’ve always loved my food and I live in constant fear of some kind of relapse. Walking around Asda on a Saturday morning can feel like some kind of purgatory as I try to avoid aisle after aisle of delicious fatty rollbacks! In fact, I can’t even walk down the biscuit or crisp aisles anymore, which I suppose is some display of discipline, however sad it might seem. Such is the hold that body image can have though. And it must be the same for thousands of middle aged men. We’re at a certain age; our bodies simply can’t exercise enough anymore and years and years of sampling various foods has led to this – a belly that suggests that you might just be about to go into labour.

And then there’s man boobs, or moobs as we’ve christened them for short. I can’t lie; I’ve spent a lifetime in love with lady bumps, but I’ve never actually wanted a pair myself. And it’s so far so good on this front, but I worry that it’s only a matter of time. While I don’t have impressive pecs, I do have something that actually resembles a masculine and muscular chest (small, but definitely made of muscle, all the same) and the thought that this could turn into something resembling snooker balls in a sock dangling from my chest area terrifies me. Because if slim fitting shirts and t-shirts bother me now, imagine how I’m going to feel if I develop moobs! Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever been more serious about exercise!

As a middle aged man I’ve started to worry about lots of different aspects of my body. One of the more unusual aspects that I’ve begun to consider is the state of my backside. And no, I’m not about to reveal that I’ve got piles or anything like that. I’ve written some awkward paragraphs in my time on this blog, but the piles paragraph simply won’t be one of them. For one, thankfully middle age hasn’t brought that particular horror and for another thing, I don’t think I’d ever write about it if it had happened. I want to be sure that people can still look me in the eye if need be.

In fact, and almost as embarrassingly, what I worry about in an arse sense is actually whether or not it’s still pert. Yes, you read that right. As a slim fella I’ve always had a small bum. Pert too. But recently it occurred to me that, given my age, this might not be so anymore. I’ve even gone as far as checking it out. Not in an obsessive way, but briefly having a quick glance in the mirror. Thankfully, it’s not threatening to start hanging behind my knees or anything like that, so for the time being I’m fairly pleased. But of all the things I thought may concern me as I got older, this wasn’t one.

I think it says a lot about body image that as a man in my forties I’m concerned about having a saggy arse and it made me wonder if this is the kind of thing that other middle aged men worry about. I couldn’t bring myself to ask though. I mean, if it’s not considered wholly masculine to worry too much about your body shape, then I’m sure I’d be derided for asking that kind of question of any of my mates. However lads, if any of you have any concerns or have conducted any of your own personal market research, then I’m happy to talk. We could make a night of it – a proper boys’ night with some takeaway, a nice bottle of wine, candlight and a romcom. You know where I am…

Gaining grey hair was a sign that middle age was approaching. However, what sealed the deal with middle age, and simultaneously started me worrying was when I noticed that it wasn’t just the hair on my head that was changing colour; my chest hair was also going grey…and white in some places. I can’t lie…I began to pluck. And I kept on plucking. This was a visible sign of my body’s failure and its obvious lack of youth and I hated it with a passion. I’m not young enough in my outlook to think that shaving my chest is OK. That’s for a different, weirder generation. For me chest hair is cool and it made me feel decidedly masculine. But grey chest hair? This was calamitous.  But the more I envisaged it this way, the worse it got. I seemed to be forever spotting new grey and as a result, forever plucking. In turn, my worry grew more. I didn’t want to be old!

In the end a combination of being unable to keep up with their growth and a gradual acceptance that I couldn’t win helped me relax. Nowadays I’m comfortable with it and in actual fact, this metamorphosis has slowed. I only really have a small patch of grey and white on my chest and the rest, perhaps due to my more relaxed attitude, has remained resolutely black. So while I have I kind of Cruella de Ville look going on with my chest, it’s not up there with the belly in terms of how it dominates my life. In terms of my body image and my ‘dad bod’, it’s OK.

The final area that concerns me more and more with my middle age is what it’s doing to my skin. Specifically, my face. I’m getting wrinkles. Not loads. I don’t yet look like I’m made of leather, but there are definite wrinkles and again it’s a concern. Vanity plays its part here. I think it’s widely accepted that men age better than women in general and they’re certainly not judged by how they look as they get older in anything like the way that women are. But I can’t shake the worry of wrinkles. I don’t see that wrinkles may make me look more dignified, full of character or interesting; I just see age catching up with me.

I’ve tried to combat this particular body image worry for years. I’ve used moisturiser for some time now in order to keep my skin looking at the very least acceptable. But even that is a balancing act. While vanity tugs at me urgently to look after my skin and not worry about what people might think should they find out about me using moisturiser, some misguided sense of masculinity tells me I’m committing some kind of crime against manhood. You see, where I’m from – and my dad and many uncles will back me up on this, once they’ve gotten over the shock of my skincare revelation – men don’t put cream on their face. And all joking aside, I think I’m from an era where lots of my peers probably don’t see it as normal either. And thus, although I use moisturiser to try and keep age at bay at bit, I don’t use it anywhere near enough for fear that I might just turn into a girl or something!

As someone who’s regularly been told that he doesn’t look his age, actual middle age has come as quite a shock and body image, something that’s always been quite an issue for me, has crept more and more into my thinking. I’m not prepared to accept my fate though. The idea of a ‘dad bod’ is fine, but let it happen to someone else’s dad. The belly can wait, as can the moobs and I’ll keep kidding myself that people – not just women, but people, after all I’m a modern man – are checking out my pert little behind. I don’t think I mind being objectified (or at least telling myself I’m being objectified), but I’m damned if I’m not going to fight middle age all the way!