I celebrated my 40th birthday at the end of last year. Most of us will probably clock any decade over 20 as a reasonably significant milestone, and for me this felt like a pretty big one… but not because it represented some kind of achievement / success deadline, or even another step closer to old age. My fortieth was a moment for reflection for me for a very particular reason. This is a longer post than normal, because there’s a decade of backstory. I hope you think it’s worth the extra time; stay with me!
Back in 2006, early on in the year at the end of which I would turn 30, I started to think about my lifestyle in a completely unprecedented way. It began with the tiniest seed thought, a suggestion dropping into my mind: to give up alcohol for Lent. I have an active faith, and I’ve been a committed member of a church since I was a teenager, but before this, Lent had never popped up on my radar.
Nevertheless, I listened to the thought. I interrogated it a little. Is this about drinking too much? Or, is this a moral decision of some kind? But really, it felt just as simple as enacting a discipline for a few weeks, apparently unrelated to any other factor in my life. So I did.
The unanticipated outcome of this brief, minor lifestyle amendment was that I felt a new level of empowerment over my body. I recognised the impulse to trigger relaxation or comfort with a glass of wine, and I didn’t give in. I was able to subject myself to a small discipline, and it made me see that my spirit was stronger than my physical self.
A few months down the line, my husband and I had begun talking about my 30th birthday. He had been saving for a while to buy me a Kenwood Chef (an electric food mixer similar to the one my mum had owned when I was a child, and with which I had made my first forays into baking as a teenager). It felt like a rite of passage—almost part of being a mother myself—to have my very own Kenwood, and I was touched and pleased by Tom’s gesture. And yet…
…once again a suggestion fell softly into my consciousness like a leaf from a tree: that same amount of money could buy a gym membership.
I thought about it. With a Kenwood Chef mixer, the natural outcome will be that I’ll bake more cakes. With a gym membership I’ll… do what?! Actually I had no idea. I’d literally never been inside a gym before. But the same feeling awoke inside me as when I briefly gave up drinking. I wasn’t wildly overweight—but I’d had a couple of kids, I had no healthy exercise routines in place, and I enjoyed rich food and reading books and watching movies. It occurred to me for the first time that if I wanted to see my children’s children, I may need to do something differently.
With that small but significant foundation of confidence gained from cutting out wine for a few weeks earlier in the year, I now knew I was capable of pushing myself a little outside of my comfort zone. I joined the gym, and over the next few years I gradually developed a different mindset: about exercise, my capability, my opportunities, and my identity.
Towards the end of this period, I also began to think about what I ate. I had been working out, swimming a mile a week, and walking many more miles, hill-climbing, getting outdoors all the time, camping with the kids—yet I still hadn’t really considered the impact of what I was putting into my body. Additionally, I’d had some pregnancy-related health issues around this time, and had to take an enforced break from exercise for about a year. Having regained my mobility, I now needed to look seriously at the dietary element of my lifestyle, and get things into balance.
I talked to a friend who’d always been healthy, but who had recently changed her regular diet pretty radically, in order to lose weight and improve her heart fitness. We talked about portion control (easily the most significant change I made, as I had to totally recalibrate my body’s expectations of appropriate serving sizes), as well as considering what actually goes into the food I was eating. I swapped high fat, heavily processed things for healthier choices, lowered my carbohydrate and meat input, and upped my fruit and veg. It was as simple as that. No shortcuts or special diet foods, and I lost 44lbs (3 stone) in a year, hitting a BMI of 21.
Life continued to move forwards, and now with four children under our belt, my gym membership wasn’t a realistic part of the family budget any more. I’d been wondering what I could do (apart from incorporating as much walking as possible into my daily routine) to regain and then maintain the level of fitness I’d developed over the last seven years. That’s when the next thought dropped in—quite literally this time, through the door, in the form of a flyer for a local Pilates class.
My husband started running around the same time I began Pilates. Initially, I was impressed by his commitment, but entirely unmoved to try it myself. Then, a year later, he had to withdraw from a race due to injury. After twelve months of Pilates, my core strength was unlike anything I’d achieved before. The same quiet voice prompted me again: maybe I could take his place, if I did some training?
I’d had the odd flirtation with a treadmill, but nothing prepared me for how I would feel the first time I tried a road run. (I AM GOING TO DIE, PROBABLY WITHIN THE NEXT COUPLE OF MINUTES.)
Nothing had prepared me for how I’d feel after a run either. (I AM AN INDOMITABLE ATHLETE WHO CAN CONQUER THE UNIVERSE.)
I was hooked from the first run—despite gasping and groaning through every second of it. No walk, swim or workout had ever given me feeling of power, exhilaration and sheer freedom of a run, and it was instantly obvious that this was where the previous eight years of exercise had been leading. I became a runner.
And that’s the short version of my journey, since just-before-30. It hasn’t been linear or predictable, and I’ve experienced some setbacks (everything from a blister to a wheelchair, with some surgery along the way!).
But I have gone from strength to strength: the curve has always been to greater health and fitness, a clearer sight of my own identity, and my own responsibility to steward my body. I take seriously the requirement on me to show my children—especially my daughters—that sport is for everybody, and exercise is an essential part of living a full life.
All of this is context for why my fortieth birthday felt like such a great milestone. A few months ago I went for a health assessment, offered by the NHS to those aged between 40-74. The nurse weighed and measured me, took various blood tests, and a history of my general lifestyle. (All she wanted to know was whether I did a few hours of ‘brisk walking’ each week – I didn’t even get to mention running!)
When my results came back (in the form of some stats, and a little pictograph of sad or happy faces to represent the health levels of various lifestyle factors), the nurse laughed: she said she couldn’t remember ever seeing all smiley faces before. I aced the test!
I told her that if I’d had a health check a decade earlier, it would have looked extremely different. Now my BMI is 21.5, my cholesterol/HDL ratio is 1.7, and my blood pressure is 108/76. According to the clinical scoring used to predict heart disease and stroke risk, my chances of dying from either is 0.28%, and I have the heart of a 33 year old.
Exercise and healthy diet works.
I’ve given my children the chance of a grandma for their kids. I’ve given myself a happier, more energised and powerful outlook. I’ve improved my marriage. I’ve improved my mental health.
I’m sharing my story because I know it’s possible for absolutely everyone to redefine their ‘normal’ and make positive changes which stick. I’m watching friends do it every day. I’m doing it every day. Small consistent changes lead to powerful outcomes.
Nobody makes this kind of journey alone. I’ve been impacted by many great examples of persistence and determination I’ve seen in others, which have been a significant part of my personal process. And I’m not done yet— balanced, mature and strong womanhood is full of complexity.
I’m on a moving platform, aiming at a moving target. I’ll keep running.
Running streak total today is 188 days, 702 miles. #runeveryday