Making a Break part 3 – Our Bodies
Here we are at the final instalment of "Making a Break": my meandering and in no way scientific look at how attitudes surrounding health have changed since my Gran was a child, 80 something years ago. We've taken a brief look at nutrition, moved on to sport (mostly through the lens of school), and now we come to something that I know is as important to Feel Fit as it is to me personally - our attitude towards our bodies.
One of the most striking things that came out of my conversations with my mum and my Gran, was the very different way each of us regarded our bodies, particularly as adults, and especially during pregnancy.
"We didn't think about our bodies in those days; they were just something we had...I didn't really start to think about my body until it started to stop doing things"
My Gran had 3 children in 2 and a half years. She thinks that this is why her back eventually "went". There was no recovery time, and no encouragement to take time to recover. I think she is quite amused that we have all these classes to strengthen our muscles and get ready for pregnancy and birth. Back then the attitude was that childbirth was natural and you just got on with it. But she does admit that if there d been more awareness of that sort of thing then she might not have put such a strain on her back. She remembers that after my mum (her youngest) was born they moved to Essex. She'd have to lift a huge Silver Cross pram, with the baby in it and Martin (the next oldest) on a seat on the top, shopping under the pram, then the nappy bag, with Sue (the eldest) on reins up the 3 steps into the hallway every time they came back to the house. I can't imagine anyone reminded her of the need to "engage her core".
This was where her back problems all started, with a slipped disc, which she had to deal with while caring for 3 children and 4 bedroom house alone after her husband left. But it wasn't until I started mocking the effort it took for her to get out of the chair when I was about 2 that she thought she'd better go to the doctor. He diagnosed arthritis, quite early in her 50s
My Mum spoke of how she had hurt her back in in her mid-30s pulling Taddy (my younger brother) off a statue and it never recovered. This led a lack of suppleness and then arthritis in her late 40s. But the focus for physical activity in society then was weight loss for women, or building muscle for men, not protecting your joints and working for long term mobility.
In comparison, In the run up to Ethan's birth my focus was on carrying the baby healthily and looking after my body through the pregnancy and birth and afterwards. Pregnancy yoga brought a new focus on how my body worked, as did the recovery. Especially as the birth was so traumatic. I carried on working out with pregnancy specific classes all the way up to my waters breaking on the yoga mat at 39 weeks. I did the same with Erica, with yoga classes and a toned-down version of my usual workouts. But there was so much more information out there on how to stay fit and healthy whilst pregnant.
After I had Ethan my body was pretty broken. For the first few weeks after my C-section it hurt to move, cough, laugh and I couldn't lift him. I recovered well, mainly because of the consistent exercise I had done before he was born, but I have always been conscious of protecting my core. And again now, after giving birth to Erica, my focus is rebuilding strength to support my joints. My concern with my body and exercise now is mobility and stamina - staying healthy and physically able to do everything I need to do with my children now and ensure that my body works well into the future.
As an example, in the last 4 or 5 years I have become more aware of my back - I notice the difference now if I don't take care of it or if I take some time off exercise. HIIT doesn't work for me and my back/joints. I tried it for 4 months when birth control made me put on loads of weight and I was desperate to get it off quickly - but I ended up damaging my shoulder.
What I think we can learn from the historical relationships people had with their bodies is that people only listened to the signals when they were so extreme that they couldn't be ignored. Being in tune with the smaller signals your body is sending you is the key to growing old gracefully and with mobility and agility.
We wait until it screams and we have no option of ignoring it - a slipped disc, a pulled muscle, the unexpected flu when we have a week of - it's grown tired of nudging and has to knock us down to make us hear anything.
And then it is so hard to repair - to get back to equilibrium.
How much easier would it be if we could tune in to the small whispers - the nudges, the slightly out of sync menstrual cycle, or the repeat headache, or the tightness across the shoulders.
Prevention is better than cure seems such a trite phrase. But, as I said last week, we only get one body. Ellie is very fond of saying that she still wants to be wiping her own bottom when she's 90, and although I laugh, I completely agree.
The best way to get there is to start early. Knowledge has come on leaps and bounds, especially in our understanding of the female body, and how it is affected by hormones, pregnancy and birth. That's why, as long as everything is going well, pregnant women are encouraged to continue any exercise they've been doing (apart from, you know, sky diving and stuff!).
But the biggest change in recent years is, I think, the acknowledgement that taking care of ourselves as women is important; that we can't continue to be self-sacrificing if we want to continue caring for those we love; that seeing our body as collateral damage in the effort to be all things to all people just ends up with us having to ask someone else to wipe our bottoms for us - and probably sooner than we'd think.
As women especially, I think we have the tendency to power through (colds, aches, twinges, small difficulties). Well go to the kettlebell class but we wont say anything to our trainer if things are stiffer that they have been in a while. Or we'll take our children to the doctors but we won't make an appointment to talk about the frequent stomach pains we've been having or the periods that wipe us out for days.
These little signals are our body's only way of telling us that something needs to change - needs our attention. And now we have so much more knowledge at our disposal than my Gran did years ago, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage. Talk to your personal trainer (or get one, I know Ellie has space!), phone your GP, go get a sports massage, find a Pilates video on YouTube - look after your body for the long haul and give it the care and attention it deserves. We owe it to our Grandmothers!