During secondary school in the sixties I loved P.E. I have absolutely no idea why because I was rubbish. I was always the last girl standing when the sportier ones were picking team members for netball. I even felt sorry for them when there were no good players left and they had to have me on their team. I’ve never been sporty and I wasn’t that good at catching balls, throwing the javelin or anything else we had to do. I think I just enjoyed being out of the classroom in what was a very formal, strict Catholic grammar school. Hockey was my favourite. Not because I was good at it but because I liked the noise the sticks made during bully off and I was also quite adept at using my hockey stick to whoosh gravel up my opponent’s knickers!
Yes, it’s true to say that exercise per se didn’t really figure much in my life.
There was no reason for it to do so.
It was much, much later when I changed my mind.
Whilst in my late 30’s a colleague of mine advised me to enjoy my health now because ‘it’s all downhill once you reach 40’. 'Off' was the second word I thought of. A few years into my forties I recalled this colleague’s prophecy. Strange muscle and joint pains had begun. My eyes couldn’t take bright light and felt dry and gritty. My skin began to lose its pigment. My eyebrows had already turned completely white several years before. [I have them dyed every month: brown with a touch of graphite!]. It was often hard to keep upright. Sometimes the only way to get up the stairs was to crawl up. It was increasingly difficult to put in a full month at work and, whilst there, hard to adequately fulfill the day’s tasks. Above all else there was a crushing fatigue that coloured every aspect of my life and made me wonder if I’d time machined out of my forties into my nineties.
The Early Days
In 1976 I qualified as a teacher of Modern Languages and during the next 35 years taught in 4 different comprehensive schools. In 1990 I moved to my third school which was a really tough school in an extremely deprived area of Teesside. Having already taught for 14 years I thought I knew everything there was to know about teaching. The innocence of youth!
When it dawned on me exactly how tough this was going to be I implemented 2 coping strategies. One was exercise. The other was red wine. As one probably cancelled the other out neither really helped that much.
So, throughout all of the nineties and into the next decade I was exercising whenever health and motivation allowed. High impact aerobics, low impact aerobics, step, slide, salsa and spinning, I tried them all with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I had to ‘sit out’ for a few minutes now and again. Then I joined a ladies only gym in about 2003. I felt much more secure in this environment and felt that I could open up a bit about those issues which were holding me back. Then came the day when we heard that the gym was going to be taken over. By a man! It was to become a mixed gym. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I wasn’t having any of this and decided I would find out if this was true and then ask for the money back which was still left on my subscription. I telephoned. A man answered. The conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘Oh, so it’s true then.’
Him [laughing]: ‘You must be a member of the ladies only gym?’
About 15 minutes later this man had persuaded me to come and have a look around. He managed this through his sheer enthusiasm and passion for fitness as well as his firm belief that women should train exactly the same as men. This was Jack Lovett, owner of Spartan Performance.
So the day arrived when I was to have my introduction to the new facilities. Gone was the lilac and green colour scheme. It had been replaced by black, white and grey with a splash of red here and there. I couldn’t see any treadmills or weights machines with pulleys. This was new territory for me. Then I met the man who would be showing me around. Jack’s Senior Instructor, Bill Spence. At this point, I thought I’d made a horrible mistake and should just go home.
Bill was probably one of the scariest men I’d ever met and I certainly couldn’t envisage him training me or that he’d be interested in any pitiful progress I might make.
Previously, the type of man who had trained me were rather precious, lycra clad worries to their mothers! Bill was the complete opposite! I remember I kept on asking him questions and I could see his lips moving but wasn’t really taking in anything he said. I’ve since told Bill about this and we had a good laugh about it because I later realised that his intensity and focus was simply because he shared Jack’s philosophy that training is as equally important for women as it is for men. In short, they are both passionate about everyone realising their fitness potential. Going back after this introductory session was the best decision I ever made. I ended up doing 2 or 3 of Bill’s conditioning classes a week and he also taught me how to use kettlebells and TRX straps. I joined Jack’s Strongwoman class [who saw that one coming?] and learnt how to use free weights safely whilst still making progress. Both Bill and Jack showed me that I could, and should, have confidence in what my body can do.
Some of my friends think I’m completely nuts but I know that this form of exercise has given me my life back.
Arhthritis usually comes free with Sjorgren’s. Having spent several years with my left leg often giving way whenever I stood up I was used to entertaining anyone who was around at the time. The doctor said this was a problem in my left hip. Much more recently during a hospital visit I found out that I have very little flexibility there. The right knee was also dodgy but there was a far more pressing problem about to rear its ugly head.
In 2005/2006 or thereabouts I was teaching Spanish to a delightful group of sixth form students in Gateshead. Preparing to demonstrate some grammatical structure I turned to write on the whiteboard.
Picking up the board marker suddenly sent searing pain through my thumb joint and tears into my eyes. What the hell just happened? I couldn’t even loosely hold the pen.
This inability to grasp went on for a long time and got so bad that it took me 45 minutes to write a paragraph. The pain was intense. God, I had some laughs later after being referred to Occupational Health. ‘You mustn’t pick up a boiling kettle with just your right hand. Instead, use both hands to firmly grasp the kettle on each side’. Well, I suppose two scalded palms are worth more than one scalded foot.
The physiotherapist was much more helpful and also practical. She explained that there was already tissue damage to my hand and it was in danger of turning into a bowl shape. I had to buy one of those gloves usually filled with wheat that you heat up in the microwave. This was to warm up my hand for about 20 minutes every day. Alright if you don’t mind smelling like a stale digestive biscuit I suppose. Then, I had to force my thumb back to try to flatten the palm. This was hard. Also, a bit boring. Not to mention painful.
Who would have thought that a wheelbarrow would dramatically improve my hand and eradicate 99% of the pain?
Not the gardening sort but rather the one favoured by Bill Spence, senior instructor at Spartan Performance. You know, the sort of wheelbarrows you used to love playing when you were a kid. At first my spine seemed to sag, or was it the gravitational pull of my not inconsiderable stomach that made my back ache and stopped me from moving even a short distance. Over the next few months, I could gradually manage the length of the room. Then the length of the room and back again. Then up and down the room several times. I rejoiced in what must have been a stronger core because my back didn’t ache anymore.
Then I suddenly realised MY HAND DIDN’T HURT EITHER! Yes there’s still a slight curve there and it will never go as flat as the left hand, but it works now. Can you hear the phrase ‘body weight exercises’ singing to you? You should.
About 6 – 12 months into exercising body weight style, that is, squats, lunges, star jumps etc., I noticed I was feeling tons better than normal. It took a while to realise that my body was also changing. Other people noticed though. It’s fair to say there was a mixed reaction. Here are some of their comments:
1. My God. You’re tiny! [That was the nicest.]
2. You haven’t got the big C have you? [No, I couldn’t believe that question
3. I think you’ve lost enough now.
4. Your husband’ll have nowt to get ahold of soon.
5. You’re obsessed with exercise.
6. You don’t HAVE to go to the gym you know.
7. You’ll lose all your boobs. [I’ve only got 2 anyway!]
A bit negative I thought. To be fair, I was walking around like a complete nutter in baggy arsed trousers and tee shirts which bore a passing resemblance to a marquee.
As I said, I hadn’t really noticed the difference in my shape. When you’ve been over 12 stone 7 lbs at 5 foot 3 for a long time you get into the habit of not looking at your body.
Side Effects Of All This Exercise
Having spent the majority of my adult life following various diets and joining slimming clubs many times I suddenly found that I was eating a lot of food. I do mean a lot. Was I putting on weight? Not a bit. Saturday nights often entailed a bar meal, lots of wine and an ice cream in the cinema later. Friends would ‘watch their weight’. I kept on eating. Sometimes I even pigged out during the week.
Linked to this I was still teaching and during one lesson when I was pointing at a hormone ravaged, irritating little smart arse, he shouted: ‘God look at the muscles on that arm.’
This was quite a good signal that exercising at first just body weight but then moving on to free weights was making a difference. Of course, as we all now know it was also burning fat and boosting my metabolism. I could eat a whole lot more than the average dieter. This was particularly good news for me as a sufferer of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, a condition in which your body destroys its own thyroid, leaving you tired with a sluggish metabolism thus prone to weight gain.
Sjorgren’s is a funny old thing. It gets you when you least expect it. I would experience 2 or 3 really bad bouts a year when I had to spend several days in bed. Because it’s systemic it can affect many parts of the body including internal organs, causing them to try to destroy themselves. I’m quite lucky because it only affects my joints, eyes and energy levels. I can usually put up with the muscle and joint pain and the arthritis. I can also put up with the regular visits to the eye infirmary. Having eyes that produce roughly half the moisture which they should, and having it evaporate in twice the time it should, means that eye irritation is a constant factor. Episcleritis is extremely painful and needs kick ass painkillers. Meibomianitis is less painful but carries its own problems. The reason I can usually tolerate these things is that they are tangible. Every so often I give in and take maximum daily dose pain killers for a fortnight.
However, having discovered that painkillers inhibit muscle growth and recovery I try to avoid them as long as possible. No way am I going to undo all the blood, sweat and tears I suffer in the gym!
I use artificial tears several times every day which I get on prescription. Did you know that most over the counter eye drops carry a health warning for those who also have thyroid disease? It’s because they often contain adrenaline and this reacts with the medication. Sometimes, I also have to smear ocular jelly onto my eyeballs at night. Not a sexy look! My optician tells me I’ll be begging for my tear ducts to be cauterized within 6 months. We’ll see about that.
One of the ‘fun’ times I had was when I was diagnosed with this condition. Having anti nuclear antibodies in my blood wasn’t enough. Whilst in the hospital one day alking to the rheumatologist to whom I’d been referred because of constant joint pain, I suddenly noticed she had developed a gleam in her eye.
With the speed and dexterity of a ninja she ripped off a strip of special paper and rammed it down the lower eyelid of my right eye. Within a split second I realised that the mad cow was going to do the same to my left eye. I tried retreating but she was too fast.
Sitting there with 2 bits of paper sticking out from the lower rim of my eyes was quite surreal and very uncomfortable. After a while she pulled them out and then measured the moisture on each of them. There was far, far less than what should have been there. In fact, the left eye was producing less than half the ‘normal’ amount. This is known as Schirmer’s test. I’ve read since that before you have this done you’re supposed to have numbing eye drops put in the eyes!!!
Again, after a couple of years training my niece Jen, who doesn’t see me very often because she lives in France, noticed that my eyes were starting to look clearer. Previously, the whites had often appeared dull and opaque, often with visible, small lumps on them. I honestly believe that exercise massively improves circulation and that this helped. They are still very dry but they do look better.
However, the thing which really used to distress me BIG style was the debilitating fatigue which is also a part of Sjorgren’s. This ISN’T tangible like joint pain, arthritis and painful, swelling eyeballs. It’s crushing, it can’t be explained to other people [because they often think it’s just like when they feel tired or sleepy], and it’s the one thing which is guaranteed to make you feel old before your time. It really is a truly horrible thing. I couldn’t raise my arm above my head. I remember driving home from work one day [in dangerous zombie mode!] and it took me a full 20 minutes to get out of the car. The door was too heavy for me to push open. If any of you reading this have Sjorgren’s you’ll know exactly what I mean. But have you noticed that I’ve used the past tense when talking about the fatigue? The truth is, even though I get tired a lot and take regular catnaps, I haven’t experienced that level of fatigue for several years now. I put it down to exercise, exercise and more exercise. On a visit to the doctor’s for more blood tests about 4 years ago [so that’s 2 years into my new regime at Spartan Performance] she said that she had never seen me looking so well and asked what I was doing.
When I told her it was things like squats, lunges, wheelbarrows, push ups etc she laughed and told me that was the best thing I could be doing. We all accept that exercise seems to boost energy levels but it also has a massively positive effect on ‘medical’ fatigue. Go for it! Beast yourself!
Heavy Metal vs Pink & Fluffy
Have you heard the one about women needing to lift weights? It goes something like this: ‘To remain healthy and avert osteoporosis women should lift weight up to, during and after the menopause. Anything up to 20 lbs is good.’ Whoa! Rewind! 20lbs? What? Even I can single arm bench press more than that. What good is 20 lbs to any female? None whatsoever. What on earth’s the point of telling women to lift something which is probably LIGHTER THAN THE SHOPPING! If you want to avert osteoporosis as much as you can then I say: Lift heavy or go home! Don’t worry though. Because by lift heavy I mean as heavy as you can manage. Not what the meathead in the corner’s doing. You’ll get stronger over time. I can assure you of that.
Get yourself into a good gym and take it gradually. Personally, when I get accustomed to a weight I can usually manage to increase it by 2.5 kilos, sometimes 5. Small incremental steps will bring you success. It will also greatly improve your health, bone density, metabolism and body composition. But BEWARE: you’ll probably have to buy stacks more clothes too!
Whilst I’m on this particular rant I was incensed to read the other day, on a health and fitness site, that people over 50 shouldn’t really lift free weights. They’d be ‘much more comfortable using the fixed weights in the gym’. The ones with pulleys. The ones which don’t work you as well as free weights do. I think that you need to work with free weights rather than fixed ones to challenge your balance at the very least. Don’t give up just because somebody puts you into an age category and says that ‘it’s not safe’. That logic always makes me think of this statement: I’m pink therefore I’m spam!
"You’ve got osteoarthritis in your entire spine"
Or to put it another way: Hey, did I just pull 100 kg off the bleeping floor?
Sjorgren’s Syndrome causes a variety of ailments. That’s what ‘syndrome’ means. One of them is arthritis. Already having arthritis in my right hand, right knee and left hip, it wasn’t a great surprise to learn it was also in my spine. The doctor said that the degeneration had started years ago because the x- rays showed huge osteophytes [bone spurs] growing on my vertebrae, trying to fuse everything together.
I know lots of people have this. I don’t care. I didn’t want it.
Unfortunately I was given lots of medical advice:
1. Lose weight.
2. Take more exercise.
3. Do less exercise.
4. Take stronger painkillers.
5. Do Pilates.
6. Do Yoga.
7. Use the cross trainer.
8. Don’t lift anything heavy.
This wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. I was hoping for more encouragement to take a holistic approach. Like many people, I still feel that, whilst not medically trained, I know my own body and I’m prepared to listen to it and do the very best I can for it. I want it to last a very long time.
I used to have a feel for what my body needed when I was in my twenties. Then for some reason I lost this and the weight piled on. So I placed all my dietary needs in the hands of every popular slimming club out there. Several times over. The weight kept on coming back but each time there was always just that little bit more added on.
Especially with getting older I realised that I couldn’t afford to ‘start on Monday’. It had to be NOW.
Feeling this good 99% of the time is far, far better than the few minutes of pleasure I used to get scoffing cake.
So, with the help of my good friend Joanne Simpson, I began a macro diet. This is where you ensure you’re getting the right ratio of protein, carbs and fats, depending on the amount of exercise you do as well as your body type. Yes I know it drives my husband Bob crazy as he does all the cooking, but it’s worth it. Plus, the encouragement I get from Joanne is brilliant, both in terms of my diet and my exercise. It’s good to have a like minded buddy. She is an inspiration with her dedication to be as fit as she possibly can be. Most days my breakfast alone totals more than 600 calories. Far more than I ever ate whilst at slimming clubs. I’ve also lost a stone since Christmas. I constantly ask Keir Wotherspoon of Spartan Performance for his input on good nutrition. What he tells me is sound, practical and sensible advice which is applicable to both sexes no matter what age group they’re in.
‘Diet’ foods are a huge NO NO, as are reduced fat/calorie foods.
Neil Johnson, owner of Genetic Supplements, is another passionate devotee of eating good, healthy food and not touching stuff where you don’t recognise the ingredients. Where would we be without Neil’s Facebook pictures of his breakfasts? I’m very lucky to be surrounded by people who take health and fitness seriously but the message is generally the same from everyone: good, whole foods and nothing that’s been tampered with in terms of artificial flavourings or sweeteners etc. Cereal for breakfast? Not a chance!
You might think that life’s too short to look at the finer detail of protein/carbohydrate/fat ratios. Well, I think life’s too short not to.
Going back to the list of advice I was given about my back I decided to ignore most of it. I prefer to keep on pushing my body. Exercise should be the hardest thing you ever do. Each and every time that you do it. If that isn’t the case then what happens? Does the vacuuming become the hardest thing you ever do? Or the gardening?
In a session at the gym one day I realised that I loved trying to deadlift. This has now become a regular part of my routine. Bill told me that if you use correct form, then the deadlift can strengthen your back. Having been told by the medical profession not to lift anything heavy, I thought I’d give it a go!
So, apart from experiencing that delicious mixture of excitement and apprehension, what happens when I deadlift? Well, I feel good. And strong. And powerful. And free from any back pain. Because I go to an excellent gym with excellent trainers who insist on good form at all times. I have a target of 110kg. For now! I’m not knocking the medical profession here. They probably haven’t got time to deadlift regularly.
Who are you competing against anyway?
I’ve already mentioned that my gym’s philosophy [yes I’m very possessive about it now] is that everyone should be aiming for their maximum fitness levels. There are young athletes in my gym, the stars of tomorrow. Successful caged fighters train there, footballers, figure and fitness models and strength competitors. There are even a few over seventies who train regularly. However, it’s probably true to say that the general membership is the ‘ordinary’ person aged between 20 and 40 who are aiming to get fit. Everyday I see young women making faster progress than me. They can lift heavier, push the prowler faster. Get in more reps than me. They don’t seem to sweat as much as I do in the classes, nor does their breathing seem to suggest imminent death as I imagine mine does. New starters soon overtake me. None of this matters to me in the scheme of things. It’s a long time since I thought of them as my competitors because I now know that I’m already competing with my harshest critic: myself.
When I come last in a group activity, when I can’t lift the same weight I lifted last week, when I just can’t get another rep out, yes I HATE myself. I get so angry. Then eventually I remember that I can now do near perfect push ups, chest straight to the floor. ‘You only get good at doing push ups by doing push ups’. [Bill Spence]. I can push the prowler, pull the sled, and lift far heavier than ever before. When the guy in the hardware shop asks if I need help carrying the 25kg bag of wild bird seed to my car I laugh in his face. When the woman on the till at the local garden centre asks how on earth I managed to carry the huge sack of pebbles I just shrug and say I couldn’t find a trolley. But the inner me is secretly beaming from ear to ear.
You see, I’m competing with myself every single day. AND I’M WINNING!
Writing this article has been incredibly cathartic for me. I feel so grateful to Jack Lovett and Bill Spence at Spartan Performance for being the first to open my eyes to the sheer power of exercise. Remembering the way I was and the way I am now actually makes me want to cry. I’d still be rubbish at netball but I’m 100% fitter than I was 30 years ago.
I’m much more resilient mentally as well as physically, a fact my husband Bob keeps on pointing out. He remembers the days when he had to do all the heavy work himself. I couldn’t even put the bins out. I couldn’t lift one of my cats [weighs a stone] onto the vet’s examining table. Now I do things like that without thinking. I understand what functional training is.
It has improved my daily life a hundred times over.
Do I live for the gym?
No. I live because of the gym.