…and, blessed as if a soul escaped from purgatory, I bounded, leaped, and flew down the steep road; then, quitting its windings, shot direct across the moor, rolling over banks, and wading through marshes…
-Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
I leapt across an icy puddle up on my moor this afternoon. The ground was frosty and hard, except in spots where dark mud oozed through and my trainers sank and the cold reached my feet and I thought ‘eww’. And I laughed.
Another such habit that I am reliant on is going outside. Not just walking between the house and the car, or hurrying along the street to get from the car park to the hairdressers, but being and enjoying being outside.
“I’m never doing this again,” I swore after the father dragged me up Snowdon as a rather unfit teenager. And yet, now I’ve taken responsibility for my body and I’m not so squidgy, walking is something I really enjoy doing. It’s bliss whether it’s giggles and chatter with a companion, the slow unravelling of life’s problems, or a quiet occasional exchange of peaceful thoughts. When I’m on my lonesome, where fellow walkers glance around expecting any moment to see a dog leaping through the heather there’s an undistracted, invaluable calm.
If I could go back and convince my younger self of anything, it would be that I need to use my hands, and I need to feel the sun on my face, or if not the sun, the bitter coldness of a fresh winter breeze, or the murky drizzle. My body doesn’t feel alive seated in front of a computer. It doesn’t matter how ergonomic the chair is, I’m still missing the joys of movement.
Swooping down the hills on my bike is the closest I know to being an eagle. It’s not so easy as walking. Initially, my body resists giving up its comfort. It’s understandable. We’ve got hills here. There’s also a haunting fear associated with being reliant on a piece of machinery which I don’t entirely understand. When I swoop down those hills I’m depending on the breaks to work. As the wheels spin faster, and gravity pulls me down, I’m praying that I’m not about to end up in a hedge. It’s a risk. Adrenaline. Fun.
And then there’s running. For me, cycling is the better sport, but it’s also the one I fear more. If I fall over running, I’ll have a grazed knee. I know I can manage a little disaster. I’ve run back to an apartment in a foreign town, 3km, with blood pouring out both my knees and been fine. However, if I come off my bike, the damage is likely to be more than just a grazed knee. If I get stuck on a run, I’m going to be a couple of miles from home at the most. On a bike ride, I’m hopefully going further. The risk is higher. I’ve still never managed to mend a puncture on the side of a road, or replace an inner-tube. And yet, to soar…
But running has its own delights. When you go running for the first time in a long while, or after a cold, or when you’re forcing yourself to go rather than wanting to go, it can be miserable. It can be more than miserable. It can be horrendous. You feel like you’re dying. However, for those days where you’re running and your breath isn’t wheezing or drowning out the rattle of your house keys, you feel powerful. That satisfaction of all the cogs in this great machine working together. I look alive.
Exercise makes me feel better – stronger – and it makes me feel more confident about my body. As sad as it may be, the truth is that for most of us, image and self-worth are intricately connected. It’s all too easy to develop a negative relationship with your body image. Which is another reason I like running and cycling. It’s hard not to like yourself when you can climb a steep hill on your bike, or when you glide past a couple walking their dog and they smile at you with respect for the efforts you’re extolling.
Even if I can’t see it in the mirror, I can feel how amazing my body is. With exercise, my confidence exists independent of the mirror’s reflection. This isn’t to say I’m not insecure about how I look, or at other times vain, or that I don’t love make-up, high heels and pretty clothes. I do. Applying make-up is painting on the most interesting canvas I own. But make-up can’t give me the belief in myself that pushing my heart can.
I know which one I value more.
For me, respect for my body isn’t simply theoretical, it’s a physical sensation that’s earnt through hard work. The more I see and feel what I can do, the more I realise that my ideal body isn’t an idea sold to me through a magazine or an advertising billboard. It’s a body that knows how to ache joyously.