As I write this on 23rd March 2021, we are still in a national lockdown due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Today actually marks a year since we first went into lockdown, and barring some shorter instances of freedom, we’ve been in the current state for an entire year. It’s been tough on a lot of people, extremely hard for some and too much for others. As this started the news every day reported the figures and social media was split in 2 and set on fire by people on opposing sides of the same argument. People who had never experienced mental illness began to feel it and those who live with mental illness by and large got even worse.
If you’re anything like me a lot of your coping mechanisms involved being able to leave the house and going into some kind of building with other people. There were 3 main ones for me; going to the gym, going to a specific café to sit, write & speak to people and hugging my friends and family. I found these first 2 things incredibly therapeutic and until it was restricted, I didn’t realise how essential that third one was for my mental health.
To keep myself occupied I learned to bake nice cakes, like, really nice. Whipped heavy cream, gnash, fresh caramel, the lot. Without realising it I’d put in place a new coping strategy of making fresh cakes and eating them.
Unfortunately decreasing one’s gym activity and increasing one’s cake intake leads to one thing, weight gain. Weight gain in and of itself isn’t necessarily a positive thing when you struggle to keep your weight down and when the virus that we’re locked down for is the riskiest among obese people. My anxiety absolutely sky rocketed and my sleep pattern was obliterated, we’ll come back to this, soon.
I was forced to find other things to do to keep fit and other ways to cope with my mental illness, and as odd as it may sound to a lot of people, my life was totally changed by finding things I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t otherwise been forced to change my habits.
For as long as I can remember I have had a problem whereby I work out for a certain period of time at a certain intensity and I get sick, it lays me low and for years it has severely limited my ability to progress. 3 weeks on and 2 weeks off is the rough pattern, I think. We’ll come back to this point, too.
One of the things that I’ve always done to try and escape reality that I was still able to do is listen to podcasts, I always have. It’s pretty much the world’s most popular podcast at this point but for those who aren’t aware there is a podcast hosted by a guy called Joe Rogan. And the reason it’s so good is that he has guests from every single avenue of life at the very highest level. It started with comedians and MMA fighters but over a relatively short space of time he would have the likes of Mel Gibson, Mike Tyson, Lance Armstrong and even US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders! He has the very best of the best on to just talk and respectfully share ideas, that’s it. I’ve been exposed to so much more information than I ever would have been if I’d never listened to this.
When my anxiety hit and my sleep was impacted I would regularly wake up very early. 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. One night I woke up at 1:30am and I was just awake. This had an ENORMOUS impact on my mental health, I think sleep is the single biggest contributing factor for my declining mental health. No matter what I tried my sleep wasn’t improving, so all I could do is use my early start to my benefit. I started getting up, going to grab a coffee from a Starbucks or something and parking on the seafront waiting to sea the Sun rise on Redcar beach.
When I’d park up and spend an hour or 2 just looking at the sea I would listen to the Joe Rogan podcast, and one day they had a chap on called Ross Edgeley.
Ross Edgeley is a remarkable man, truly. He is a youngish man, in his mid-30s now I think, but the life he has had all honed him to optimise his physical and mental fitness. He played very high-level sport in his youth and went on to some pretty amazing things. He once did a triathlon with a tree on his back, he did a marathon pulling a car, he climbed a single length of rope over and over until he reached the height of Mount Everest and most impressively, he SWAM AROUND BRITAIN. He swam constantly in a very specific pattern, 6 hours swim, 6 hours rest, 24 hours a day for 157 consecutive days.
And during the swim, pardon the pun, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. He had a laceration that would turn into what’s called a Sea Ulcer an inch deep, he was stung so much by jelly fish that his face swelled up and his goggles no longer fit on his face and he developed a condition called “Salt Mouth”, where his tongue was exposed to so much salt water for so long that his tongue dried out and started to peel off in layers and fall off. And what’s perhaps most impressive is that he did it with a smile.
He’s one of the most chilled, naturally happy men I’ve ever listened to. He is also a firm proponent of science, and in fact he’s a very well-educated sports scientist with his own podcast. He speaks about the fact that if you grit your teeth and try and tough your way through things it releases stress hormones and you will get sick. So he approaches everything he does with a positive attitude, I changed this about myself and started working out as happy and relaxed as possible.
I would go to the sea front and watch the beauty of nature develop in front of me and absorb all that Ross had to say and one thing specifically caught my attention and went in more than anything else, something he calls the “Law of More”. Increasing one’s work capacity.
This details something called what is known as progressive overload. If you lift 10kg enough times for long enough you’ll eventually adapt and be able to lift 15kg. If you lift 15kg enough times for long enough and you’ll eventually adapt and be able to lift 20kg and so on. And I’ve always done this, I’m a big strong guy, but one thing that I was unaware of is that there is a window after a period of hard work where your body is weakened and your immune system is compromised, and you get sick.
I couldn’t believe this as I was hearing it! I’ve always tried to be athletic, I’ve had a boxing match, I played basketball to a reasonable level, you name it, and for whatever reason I had never even thought about this. Listening to him talk about his various feats of athleticism I decided to challenge myself to walk the 7-8 miles or so to a small mountain near me (it sounds better than big hill) and climb it. Nothing for some but for me it’s a real challenge. In my training I would just walk, and because walking is relatively low impact and low intensity I ended up working out more and getting fitter than I had pushing myself and getting sick and stopping, my fitness is better than it has been in years. And more valuably I took what I read and in doing it I now understand what it feels like when I do it properly and am now able to commit that to instinct.
One of the other things I picked up on and changed is how our bodies process calories. We all have a measure called a BMR (Base Metabolic Rate). If you woke up, laid still all day and then went back to bed the number of calories you would burn is your BMR. Using this number and knowing that to lose 1lb per week I must burn 3,500 more calories per week than I consume (roughly) I bought a £20 heart monitor to track how many calories I burned doing each exercise, and I was able to eat EXACTLY the amount of calories that I needed to lose weight but still stay properly fuelled for exercise.
This might sound mediocre to a lot of people “Oh great, you’re on a diet.” However thinking this way and having this relationship with food has actually made strides in reducing the severity of a food addiction that I’ve battled for almost 20 years that saw me balloon up to over 300lb.
The last thing that he spoke about is a little more out there so bear with me. There is another chap called “Wim Hof” and he is also a very interesting character, worth reading up on, but I’ll keep this bit short. Wim Hof developed a cycle method of intense breathing that actually boosts one’s immune system. This might have started is self-belief and circumstantial evidence, but he would go on to be studied by reputable universities with the findings peer reviewed and published:
I started doing this every so often and despite the fact I am now fitter than I have been in a long time I haven’t actually gotten as sick as I had previously in a long time.
All of this rambling to say, being forced to do things outside of my “normal” routine has genuinely revolutionised a massive part of my life.
I’m now fitter than I have been in a long time (albeit still overweight) and my relationship with food and exercise has never been healthier and more productive.
If you are like me, most of your coping mechanisms have been removed by the pandemic. And we’re coming out of it, but there is one very important lesson here that can apply to a lot of people. If things change and that change is out of your control, don’t simply wait for things to return back to normal, do everything in your power to get out of your comfort zone and do whatever you possible can. You’ll be surprised how significantly impactful this can be.