RONNY FLYNN shares her fitness regime with us. I for one am so impressed I am going to devote more time to exercise. I love the fact that a Fitbit bangle can urge me to do more, congratulate me when I try hard and monitor my sleeping habits. Its great to have a goal and even greater to reach it.
Getting and staying fit – a never ending journey
I grew up in the days when ‘exercise’ meant bending and stretching rather than increasing your heart rate, and when aerobics hadn’t yet hit the headlines. But at the same time, our family did not own a car, I walked four miles a day to and from school, and took every opportunity to dance to the latest music.
We did not eat the evening meal we now call dinner, having a cooked meal at school and high tea of sandwiches and cake on returning home, with a snack before bed if hungry. When I left home for college, I was rarely hungry enough to eat the evening meal supplied and I guess this helped the metabolism. I carried on dancing at every opportunity during my student years and believe this kept me slim and fit.
During early career days, living and working in London without a car kept me fit and I cannot remember agonising over excess weight or lack of energy. I also became a vegetarian, for health and moral reasons, but mainly because it was a discipline I found I could commit to and stick with. A career move brought me to Milton Keynes, where a car was essential, and where I met my husband who also became a vegetarian.
Early matrimonial bliss took its toll. The pleasure of shopping, cooking and eating together, coupled with the benefit of two salaries to allow us to buy and enjoy new tastes including alcohol, increased the waistlines. We also both gave up smoking and ate more to compensate, and stopped going to discos. Still not knowing about the benefits of regular aerobic exercise, we controlled our weight through dieting alone, which wasn’t a long term solution. But we did learn a lot about calorie counting, low fat and whole food cooking, which has helped us through the years.
In 1988 we discovered cycling and consciously engaged with the benefits of aerobic exercise. We bought mountain bikes and became addicted (and fitter!). I even took my bike to work and cycled in London, though on carefully-chosen traffic-light routes, until cycles were banned on commuter trains.
Cycling took a break during pregnancy and early parenthood, though we did take bicycles with us on holidays and used a child seat for our daughter. Just before her second birthday, we had three weeks cycling in the Languedoc region of France, where she kept me going during hard times by patting my back and singing to me from behind. But we found it hard to keep it up for fitness rather than occasional leisure purposes. So we bought a stationary exercise bike and hoped we would use it.
In 1994 we spent three years in Solomon Islands, where I learned to swim breast stroke properly and did some walking to keep fit, plus using the exercise bike. We also had access to unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables and low access to junk food which, with the addition of home cooking rather than eating out, made it harder to put on weight. I also used a fitness book to do short workouts inside the house(1)
On return, we settled back into home life in the UK, with new jobs and giving priority to our daughter’s schooling. But I was still carrying some excess weight and did not feel fit. Cycling was not easy to fit into life just then, and we had left the exercise bike in Solomon Islands so I looked for something I could sustain that would get me outdoors. I read a book on walking for fitness and weight loss (2) and again took seriously the benefits of aerobic exercise from reading three other books(3, 4, 5). I worked part-time for two years and was able to fit in fast walking to and from Kiran’s school, twice a day, clocking up 6 miles in total with three miles of fast walking. But I still hadn’t found exercise I would integrate into my life and sustain long-term.
In 2000 I changed jobs and for four years worked locally and flexibly. A year later I joined a gym that I could visit on the way to and from work, and in the evenings. I learned to use the treadmill, cross-trainer and the stepper machines, and there was a swimming pool. Finally, I saw results and gained confidence in my staying power – helped by the hefty yearly fees I paid. I walked up hills on the treadmill, and admired the people I saw running but thought I could never, ever run myself. However, it intrigued me but it took me many months to get up courage to try running on the treadmill. When I didn’t collapse I slowly built running into my gym routine. If I could manage to run I would save all those gym fees, and get outdoors more.
Over Christmas 2002 on holiday in France I ran for just 20 minutes every other day, plus controlled my food intake using advice from another book (6). After a week I felt great and could already see my body shape changing for the better. I was hooked, and have never looked back, though there have been setbacks and injuries. Two stress fractures, two bunion operations and breast cancer stopped me running for a while each time, but I always started again.
At my peak I ran a number of half-marathons and shorter races. I would run before work or at lunchtimes, and at the weekend. When I changed jobs again, I regularly ran to and from our main railway station, and from Euston station to my office. It’s such a portable sport and requires very little equipment. I did think of training for a marathon, but am no longer motivated to challenge myself in this way – there are other goals for me. Running cleared my mind and allowed me to solve problems and de-stress at the same time.
Keeping fit when every day is a holiday
In 2010 my husband won a two year contract to work in Solomon Islands again, and I left my job and took early retirement to join him. The pleasure of not having to get up early in the mornings that persists to this day, confined running to evenings unless I was naturally awake. Solomons was also so hot that before 7am and after 5pm were the only feasible times. I took up yoga and pilates, used a gym, jumped rope on our terrace overlooking the sea and ran short distances. Once again, the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables, eating at home rather than using prepared foods (and a bout of malaria that lingered) helped to keep me in good shape. It seemed that I could keep fit and slim with just 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least 5 times a week, as long as I didn’t overeat. More setbacks occurred once back in the UK, with an unexplained knee injury that lasted two and a half years and made running difficult. It was bearable at times and then would flare up again, so I had to rethink my fitness plans. I continued with pilates but couldn’t always bend the knee. I was occasionally able to run and cycle wearing a support bandage, but found I could walk without too much discomfort, so I built that in and tried to improve my speed.
The majority of 2013 was spent trying to maintain a reasonable level of fitness despite the knee. I also developed polymyalgia rheumatica, a debilitating auto-immune condition that comes and goes of its own accord over years, and makes exercise and movement difficult. As it is not always recognised, it took a number of months to get diagnosed and treated with steroids, but the relief was almost instant. Steroids do not cure it but they do control the inflammation that is causing the symptoms. I rejoined my fitness world again.
Taking steroids also helped the knee injury, for by the end of September 2013 it cleared up, just in time for our five month tour of Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand. My plan was to care for myself until I felt fit and well again, and I was lucky enough to have the time, comfort and money to do that. In the Solomons I jumped rope five days a week, gradually increasing my steps to get a good workout, and swam almost daily in the hotel pool, again increasing the distance. At the end of our month there I felt great. In Australia and New Zealand I swam in Cairns and Bribie Island, where I also cycled and ran in beautiful surroundings. Running, walking and cycling in South Australia and Perth was also easy as Australia is an outdoor sporting paradise. In New Zealand, the house we stayed in was at the bottom of a hill and I decided to not challenge my hill running skills so instead increased my walking. My husband had bought me a Fitbit (7) at Christmas, which tracked all exercise and provided on-line praise and incentive to reach goals – mine was at least 10,000 steps a day. My Fitbit Flex has become my firm companion.
My mum died in January 2014 and we returned home early. Although I still kept up walking and some running I comfort ate to compensate for her loss and my clothes became uncomfortable. In 2013, along with the polymyalgia rheumatica I had developed psoriasis which was another condition related to a poorly functioning auto-immune system. No amount of topical treatments had worked and I was told it was something I would have to live with. The internet is great for research and self-help and recently a book was highly recommended (8) that tackled the condition from the inside – including clearing out and detoxifying the body, then only eating fresh and whole foods and avoiding specific foods known to aggravate the condition. Tough as it felt to give up many things I loved such as alcohol, chocolate, tomatoes and prawns, it made so much sense I was willing to give it a try. Six weeks later my skin has begun to clear and as a bonus I have lost my excess weight and all my clothes fit again. I still have a long way to go for my skin to get back to normal, but with increased good health I feel I will be able to run, walk and cycle as before with the help of my Fitbit!
- Physical Fitness 5BX: The 11 minute exercise plan for men; XBX: The 12 minute exercise plan for women. Developed by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Penguin Books, 1958, 1960.
- The Walking Diet: Walk back to fitness in 30 days! Les Snowdon and Mahggie Humphries, Mainstream Publishing, 1991.
- Fit or Fat? A new way to health and fitness through nutrition and aerobic exercise. Covert Bailey, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1977, 1978.
- Dieting Makes You Fat. Geoffrey Cannon and Hetty Einzig, Sphere Books, 1983
- Fat to Fit. Geoffrey Cannon, Pan Books, 1986.
- Commando Workout: 4 weeks to total fitness, Simon Waterson, Thorsons, 2002.
- ‘Healing Psoriasis- the natural alternative’ by John O A Pagano, John Wiley and Sons, 2009.