What’s scarier than lockdown?

There are few things scarier than this endless isolation but, collectively, as a nation we have probably experienced all of them.

As we’re anxiously awaiting the announcement on Sunday, which will bring the first few relaxations to our strict lockdown (or so we hope), I want to have a look back at the last 7 weeks and how it’s affected me. I have spoken to many of you about your individual journeys and never before has it been more obvious how, despite a pretty obvious common denominator, the isolation, we all have been living completely different realities. Talking about mental health has never been more important and it’s time to stop pretending that we’re unruffled and completely fine with our worlds shrinking to the size of our living spaces. It really is okay not to be okay and we should never be ashamed for our struggles but proudly own them and grow from them.

“Together apart”

On Monday, 23rd March, as a nation, we all suddenly entered a state of grieving. Grief is explained as “intense sorrow” and it does not only occur when someone has died. Of course, we must remember those who have lost their lives or loved ones during this time as that is the greatest grief of all and my heart breaks a little every time the death toll is updated. For the rest of us, we have grieved first and foremost the loss of personal freedom and autonomy. Collectively, we were feeling incredible sorrow for suddenly having nowhere to go and nobody to talk to. The elderly in care homes would suddenly have nobody come visit and I cannot think of anything more heart breaking than that. Since the lockdown began, unspeakable amounts of people have grieved the loss of their job, relationships, friendships, the feeling of being needed and making a difference. So we all entered into the era of video calls and online friendships in an attempt to thrive in the new “normal”.

Do you still remember life before lockdown?

Try to think back to the time when we were all still simply discussing the virus and how serious it was elsewhere in the world yet musing as to how relaxed our country was amongst all this chaos. It almost felt like we were untouchable. Meanwhile, UK was being made fun of everywhere and the countless memes will live to tell the tale. The most apt (dare I say amusing?) image to describe this stage must have been the one where the virus outbreak was compared to a hazardous investigation scene. In the photo, you could see other countries such as Italy, France, Spain and US depicted as people dressed in hazmat suits investigating something on the ground while UK was merely a clueless onlooker in his summer hat, flowery shirt, shorts and flip flops with his hands in his pockets. And that was the truth – while some countries had already announced lockdown to flatten the curve, we were simply being told to wash our hands and sing the Happy Birthday song.

Shock, horror!

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the schools were announced to close with a couple of days notice. Companies were sending their staff to work from home, businesses were closing one after another, finishing with anything from gyms to beauty salons and clothing stores. Fulham & Hammersmith council even closed all of their parks on Sunday 22nd March at 7pm (but thankfully reopened them again 5 days later, which was an incredible relief). That week was probably the strangest week of my life. Every day I found myself saying goodbye to friends as nobody had a clue whether we would meet in two days or two weeks. To make the most of my days, I made sure I went to every yoga and dance class that I could to support my friends as they were about to lose their income for an uncertain amount of time. Every day I left the house, feeling positive, almost exhilarated to still be able to do things that we normally take for granted. And every day, after a productive day full of uplifting interactions, I went home and felt my spirit break a little. I would cry on the phone to Milly and she reassured me everything would be okay and that together we’d tackle anything, which always helped.

Why was it so hard for me? From Monday 16th to Friday 20th, I noticed how every day London got quieter and quieter. The gyms and studios were draining empty of people, classes were cancelled and it was all starting to feel so lonely and eerie. I love London for its people, the hustle and bustle and suddenly it was all gone, there was barely anybody left – a true ghost town. As you remember, this was also the time that all the stores were experiencing stock shortages due to the restaurants closing and people panic buying food to prepare for weeks of isolation. There was also no toilet paper. (We will never crack the code of that mystery!) All this was unnerving enough but I had no idea it was about to get a whole lot worse.

Nothing stops the Amazon! (Or so I thought)

As a busy Personal Trainer and Nutritionist, I am used to always being on the go.  My ever changing schedule would see me leave the house anywhere between 6am and 8am and return in the late afternoon, having been out all day, seeing different clients and friends depending on which part of London I was visiting. I need variety and change to my days or I’ll get stuck in a rut and get stressed. Being my own boss for all these years has been great as it allows me to dictate where my days would take me. I’ve always been headstrong and a free spirit, I hate being given “NO” as an answer and have therefore been constantly readjusting my course in life, which had so far made me relatively unstoppable. Well, surprise-surprise, the lockdown sure did stop me in my tracks!

When lockdown was imposed on the evening of Monday, 23rd, I was feeling very vulnerable after a stressful day. I actually already knew that lockdown would be announced as I had received information from a reliable source, yet I was living in deep denial. “How are they going to take our freedom away like this?” At that point I was trying to stay calm and tell myself everything would be okay but I could feel this deep anxious feeling building up inside. The days were still rather short two months ago and the dark evenings didn’t exactly help me feel more positive about the impending doom and gloom. I was aware of army controlled lockdowns in other countries and the thought of it potentially happening in London made me feel dizzy and nauseated. In my head, the thought process kept going back and fourth between “it’s going to be okay” and “I won’t be able to deal with isolation” until the latter thought won and I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stop crying. My inner child did not understand why I was suddenly no longer allowed to go outside. Milly cried with me because she didn’t know how to help me and all she does is help people. She’d never seen me like that and neither had I.

Our new life

The following 5 weeks were the toughest weeks that challenged both of us to no end. I was trying to adjust to my new life. I had to accept that I was only allowed to step out to train and shop, which would give me an hour or two outside and then would try to fill the rest of my day with relaxing or meaningful activities. There were days were I was extremely productive and I cleaned the house, windows, did my taxes etc and then on others I sat on the sofa for 7 hours watching movies. I had also suddenly become an online PT, which actually worked out very well and I will be eternally grateful for the loyalty of my clients as having daily sessions allowed me to maintain some bit of normality as I knew it. Outside of those sessions, I was restless and stressed and was only ever entirely relaxed if the three of us were doing something together. Meanwhile, Milly saw a rise in very distressing calls and incidents at work as a result of lockdown’s effect on the nation’s mental health, which left her affected for days if not weeks and the strain of it all was getting to her as well. We didn’t see each other for up to 4-6 days at time and it was all pretty lonely. Meanwhile, Silver and the cats were truly unbothered by the whole chaos going on outside and life couldn’t have been sweeter for them. Oh how some realities can be so completely different!

Cooking healthy meals for the whole family was one of my favourite ways to take my mind off the unknown and to focus on what I could control. Training also made me feel better but I couldn’t do it consistently as my motivation came and went as it pleased. Still, since we were eating good fresh food, I didn’t need to train daily to keep working on my strength, it was to simply improve my mood. We also watched movies and played games to pass the time and to keep busy. But we couldn’t ignore the fact that nothing was the same anymore. We were so used to being out of the house for the better part of our days, always doing something, training, shopping, going to restaurants and suddenly we were stuck between four walls and couldn’t recognise ourselves anymore. For two spontaneous people who never stay put, this was an enormous strain personally and together. Although we had so much planned for ourselves and you guys, this lockdown took its toll on our relationship and nearly two weeks ago we called it quits.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

So, to answer my own question – for me, having to go through heart break while on “house arrest” is definitely scarier than the lockdown itself as I never expected my relationship to crumble during this time. But, in the words of Steve Harvey: “If you’re going through hell, keep going. Why would you stop in hell?” It can’t get any worse, so it can only get better. Ironically, the isolation itself, which broke me, is also a silver lining of sorts as it has provided me with the time and space to begin to heal. I sit, think, journal and feel all these uncomfortable feelings and I’m trying to allow them to teach me something.

In case you needed a reminder – don’t be ashamed for any of the emotions you have felt or difficulties you have faced during these two months. Yes, somebody somewhere else might have it worse but you don’t have to downplay the importance of your individual reality and experience during this time. Your reality is 100% relative to you and you have the right to feel all the feelings that visit you.

Although it is obvious that this pandemic is not over yet and the road to recovery will be a long one, I am very much looking forward to the easing of some of the restrictions being placed on us. I believe we have all spent enough time in isolation, hopefully having broken away from the habits that weren’t working for us before, in order to to return to the outside world with clarity and strength to become the next level versions of ourselves.

Rx

No gym? No problem! Pt 2: How fear of the unknown in fitness and nutrition can make you a slave to your training regime.

Sequel to the blog post published on Dec, 13.

Over the last two months, I’ve barely trained because science is on my side. I know I can go through periods of decreased activity without losing muscle or gaining weight. I still make sure I move myself often and despite not having done any calisthenics or weight lifting workouts in the last few weeks, I’ve been walking to and from my clients who live and in the neighbourhood and running as many errands on foot as possible.

For someone who has consistently trained for years, any break from the gym is now deliberate and serves me well in the long term. I feel good, confident and relaxed. But it wasn’t always this way and I know this is an issue a few of my friends and colleagues have also battled with. Believe it or not, but in the past I have cried due to missed workouts and restricted my caloric intake for fear of gaining weight. For someone so blasé about training now, it almost sounds unfathomable?

Let me tell you a story.

Back when I used to teach Les Mills full time (2010-2014), I would do an average of 16 classes a week, consisting of 11 BodyCombat classes, 4 BodyPump and 1 Body Conditioning that was my own freestyle class. I was stick thin with a visible sixpack and my bodyfat was so low that I basically had no bum or boobs. It didn’t bother me at the time because I felt great. I could eat anything I wanted and it wouldn’t “stick”. Sometimes I would eat 100g of cashews without blinking, I consumed a lot of salmon and pasta, lots of high calorie foods just to keep my energy levels up. The truth is that I still wasn’t eating enough calories to keep my energy levels up and ended up very tired a lot of the time and my joints were hurting. I had no idea how much energy I was burning daily, but it was probably between 3000-4000kcal. I remember a test was done on the health of my skin when I was 26 and it came back as 36+. My collagen levels were very low, my face looked gaunt and my skin almost drained of colour. Although I am rushing ahead of my story, I would like to add I am 33 now and my skin is so much healthier than it was then.

Now, when one constantly does this much exercise and suddenly finds themselves in a different environment (ie going on holiday), it can cause a lot of concern and even panic. I call it lack-of-exercise induced anxiety. Because you are used to a certain amount of exercise and a certain diet, the balance is thrown when suddenly your expenditure drops. You don’t know how to adjust because you’ve never kept track of how many calories you burned or consumed. This can create two problems:

  1. Whatever amount of energy you’re used to consuming on a daily basis becomes the “norm” for you and in the absence of energy expenditure, the only reasonable step to take seems to be to eat less, even if you weren’t eating enough in the first place. This is why tracking one’s calories every now and again can be hugely useful as it will give you a better idea of the energy consumption on your more and less active days. This issue is very common in “cardio bunnies” as I remember they used to be jokingly called, but unfortunately comes with a fair amount of anxiety that can only be subdued with daily exercise sessions. These individuals mainly focus on areas that they think could use a drop in bodyfat. Food intake is often restricted to less than should actually be consumed;
  2. Now, the opposite: perhaps you were consuming sufficient calories for the amount of energy burned through exercise. However, upon reducing or stopping physical activity, your appetite didn’t automatically adjust. This happens when food intake hasn’t been intuitive but ‘forced’ or almost gluttonous. Depending on how long one’s eating habits have been in place, it will take at least a few weeks of gradual small changes to even begin to change the amount of food one is used to eating. *This issue haunts athletes who have been in sports that are highly taxing on one’s body: rugby, powerlifting, footballers, Olympic athletes, endurance athletes, pro bodybuilding, etc. These individuals focus on looking bigger and being stronger. Food intake has usually been on the excessive side and any energy left over would normally have been worked off in the gym. In the absence of exercise, this can lead to weight gain and depression.

Now, while I was still a group exercise instructor, I was very much the cardio bunny I described earlier. Going on holidays, I would eat a very healthy diet but looking back, it was far too restrictive, especially for someone who is on holiday and would perhaps like to enjoy local cuisine more. During half terms, I would take Silver to kids’ clubs daily so I could have a quick 1 hour workout in the gym. It didn’t even occur to me to take a break for a week or two and I wouldn’t have lasted more than 2 days without exercise.

From 2014 when I injured my knee, I had to give up most classes. It was tough because I had been blessed with classes in some very prestigious places (one of my absolute favourites was the gym in the Vault of the Bank of England). I guess my ego didn’t want to let go of the status this gave me. Also, my heart health and cardiovascular fitness were at their best but my body was broken so I had no choice. Coincidentally, this was my second year in PT (I’ve been a PT for 6 years at this stage) and I was putting a lot more focus on my gym weights sessions. So far, my gym workouts had been sabotaged by the classes I taught and vice versa. If I taught a class in the morning, my body would be achy for my own gym session later. When I trained before, I would struggle in class. So, losing my classes had a huge silver lining: by dropping excessive CV and reducing my general energy expenditure, I was finally able to start performing better in the gym. I was lifting heavier and getting stronger almost weekly and, much to my surprise, I didn’t gain weight or bodyfat. I was gaining lean muscle and getting more defined by the day. My skin was improving, my posterior started to take shape and you can say I got my curves back. So, how did that happen?

Fact: when you have been in a highly restrictive state for so long, you will go into anabolic state when you start training less and eating more (of the healthy stuff, of course – don’t abuse your body’s suddenly increased metabolism by feeding it fast food). With progressive overload and nutritious food, our body can transform in a matter of months, boosting your confidence and the way you see yourself in the mirror.

But, that’s not all. After I had stopped the unnecessary cardio and got into bodybuilding, I was still training every day, sometimes twice a day just for the fun of it. And when you have found your passion in something, why would you take a break from it, correct? I was still taking Silver to kids clubs during half terms just so I wouldn’t have to miss a gym session. Since Silver enjoyed the clubs, I didn’t see anything wrong with it because we both enjoyed getting out of the house. However, in the last two years I have “calmed down” a lot. In June 2017 something suddenly ‘clicked’ when I was on holiday in the Maldives. It was my second or third day there and I had gone to the gym (which wasn’t very big, I feel I should add), I completely lost interest about 10 minutes into my session. Outside the gym was utter paradise that is thousands of miles from home, so rare and beautiful, a place where I likely wouldn’t be able to return in a hurry and I was in the gym? What was I thinking? Just because I didn’t want to miss a day of training and was scared to lose muscle, I was willing to give up precious hours on this gorgeous island? No, thank you. I grabbed my towel and water bottle and left the gym, changed into my bikinis and headed to my lounger to soak up the sun and relax to the max. I had finally come to my senses and realised that being away in a remote location with so many exotic experiences and foods must be enjoyed with no regrets and that “normal service” can resume when I’m back. And, guess what? Miraculously, I didn’t gain tons of weight nor did I lose muscle.

Now, let’s be realistic. Noone is going to reduce their energy expenditure to a minimum overnight, especially even if the thought of it gives you shivers down your spine. It has to be done gradually, paying attention to every change in your body and mindset (or lack of) that happens on the way. I have often discussed this with friends and clients and the best approach is “one at a time”. If you’re used to training daily then start by reducing the amount of exercise you do by leaving out one session for rest. Then, adjust your food intake for that day. You can omit energy dense foods for something as equally satiating but perhaps lower in calories or higher in protein. Don’t forget to include green vegetables. The overall goal here is to feel virtuous rather than anxious about your choices. You control your food intake, your food doesn’t control you.

Carry on adjusting the frequency of your training or the intensity of your sessions until you reach a ‘sweet spot’ that allows you to maintain an optimal body composition with reasonable food intake. Allow yourself to become hungry before you eat and remember to savour the food. Drink water when needed, especially when training as it will boost your performance. Most importantly, take it one day at a time and celebrate every small victory on the way.

Have a great weekend!

 

Rahel x