Are you well? That question has become so much more loaded over the past year. Staying healthy has become a daily pursuit, and it’s been exhausting, hasn’t it? But it hasn’t been without its valuable lessons. There has been a shift in our consciousness for what is truly important – our health, our family and friends, the power of human connection, community, and the value of feeling well.
or years, working as a broadcaster, I heard guests and experts talk of anxiety. I’ve had worries and stresses, but I’m fortunate that I could never truly identify with how they felt – until Covid-19 entered my vernacular. The magnitude of this global event weighed heavily on me in those early days. And so, the ‘wellness tools’ I had dabbled in became absolute non-negotiables to keep me on an even keel.
Daily meditation, online yoga classes, deep breaths, long walks and sea swims were all part of a shift in health and wellness that I’d undertaken just a few weeks before the arrival of Covid-19. When I embarked on my Operation Peak Health challenge – which I first wrote about in Life in February 2020 – I set out to wade through the overwhelming amount of information there is on health and wellness, and to pare it back to a simple message.
I’ve felt bombarded in recent years by the ‘health utopia’ message – and, if I’m honest, it left me rather unhealthy. I was half-vegan, half-paleo, half-cocked in my decisions; not really knowing what was right for me. I wasn’t sure what I should be eating, when I should be eating or if I should be fasting. When it came to exercise, I didn’t know whether I needed to lift weights or run, or do both. Or perhaps I should just meditate on a hilltop and my health would magically regulate itself? I was lost.
So I cherry-picked some experts who have appeared on my Newstalk health and wellness show, Alive and Kicking. After a look at everything from my bloods to my body composition, I set out to follow their advice and report back on my findings. I really hoped that the key to a healthy life was relatively easy to achieve.
The pandemic was an unexpected and uninvited guest, but the slowed-down pace of life gave me more time to focus on my new regime. As a freelance operator, 2019 had been one of my busiest ever years. Juggling work with two young kids and little childcare left me feeling frazzled and like I was constantly chasing my tail. So, to be working from home – albeit at reduced hours – and have the time to focus on my family and my health was actually a welcome change.
All the experts I’ve spoken to over the last year talk about sleep, movement, nutrition and taking time for yourself and to connect with others as being essential to good health. In the ‘Blue Zones’ around the world, where people live longest and have less instances of chronic disease, it is these factors that are central to how they live their lives.
For my own exercise journey, I committed to two strength classes per week, and then did a high -intensity interval training (HIIT) workout or got out for a hike on two other days. I loved escaping to my bedroom to do online classes with Dublin Sports Clinic.
With all that was going on, exercise really became a safe haven and a major stress reliever for me. Of course there were some limitations because of Covid-19: I couldn’t have regular visits to Fiona Opperman at the clinic to make sure I was progressing and upping my weights on a regular basis. In fact, I’ve had the same three weights they donated to me at the start and I’ve gratefully made do – dumb-bells and kettlebells were like gold dust for a while.
Shirley Gleeson, of Ecowellness Consulting, had a major effect on me when she took me forest bathing for Alive and Kicking. She spoke about how time in nature is scientifically proven to reduce stress, and that two hours spread out over the week is the minimum we should be spending outside to fortify our mental health.
At least once a week, I have a wellness endeavour – that could be a sea swim, a yoga class, a date night or a meet-up (virtual or otherwise, depending on restrictions) with my friends. I plan fitting wellness into my week so, just like the weekly shop, it’s part of my routine.
Something else I had never done before was to build rest and recovery into my week. There’s such a focus on go, go, go that sometimes we run ourselves into the ground. Resting and resetting properly means more energy, more productivity and less injury from exercise. I started to charge my phone downstairs as I knew late-night and early morning scrolling was affecting my sleep. It’s made a massive difference.
I’ve never been to any dieting extreme, but I have been strict from time to time. It feels embarrassing to write this, but I would find myself in better form if my clothes fit me better. However, that would lead to me throwing caution to the wind until the clothes were tight and my morale was low again – and the loop began again. I thought this was just being a woman and that it wasn’t holding me back in any way. Now I’ve had a rethink.
Yo Yo Om wellness coaches Rosanna Harte and Claire McGrath talked me through their ‘Food is Not the Issue’ course, which helps to break down emotional eating and unhealthy habits. They got me to look at my food associations, and how I linked food with love and comfort from an early age. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if food is used as a way to deal with our emotions, it can slip into dangerous territory.
I didn’t unearth any major skeletons but I did recognise some triggers and unhealthy associations. I was surprised to find that once I’d decided they needed to go, my thought patterns around food and body image began to change.
Another major mind fix was changing my binary grouping of foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. » » Instead, nutritional therapist Daniel Davey compiled a balanced, consistent diet that nourishes my body and gives me energy. Davey didn’t call for any food groups to be cut; carbs were my friend and essential to my muscle recovery and so were at every meal, along with fats and protein. He has a fantastic book, Eat Up – Raise Your Game, and a website full of recipes.
I’ve removed guilt with food but there’s no over-eating of it, either. I make the time to plan and prepare my meals for the week. I throw on music or a podcast so it never feels like a chore. I finally made use of loads of my cookbooks and Instagram food follows. You can build up any habits if you start small and stay consistent.
That can be easier said than done, so I interviewed former pro athlete turned motivational guru Andy Ramage about his book, Let’s Do This! How to Use Motivational Psychology To Change Your Habits For Life. Afterwards, he invited me to take part in his 12-week online motivation course, ‘The Office Athlete’. Ramage doesn’t just advocate starting slowly, he talks a snail’s pace. He suggests we only focus on one new goal a month, rather than making a list in January that is gathering dust by February. It sounds underwhelming, but at the end of the year you’ve got 12 items on your wishlist sorted, rather than finding yourself writing the same list out the following January.
Ramage gave an example of starting to bring meditation into your routine. For the first while, he suggests that you don’t even meditate, you just start your day by pressing the meditation app on your phone. By getting that habit going, eventually you do it almost without thinking. The brain needs us to start small and we are more likely to succeed in the long term.
We don’t talk about this enough: starting slowly, starting gently and starting because you love yourself, not because you hate yourself. I’m imagining you rolling your eyes right now – I’m rolling mine a little too because we’re not comfortable with the notion of self-compassion. It is the opposite of what we’re sold by the quick-fix diet and wellness industries. There is big money to be made from telling us we are not enough. Our brains are designed to have a negativity bias, so we tend to believe criticism and focus on what we don’t like.
How many athletes do you think stand on the blocks at the start of a race thinking, ‘I’m terrible at running, I hate who I am, I wish I was more like the person three blocks down’? And if they are thinking that, where do they come in the race? Mindset is as important as training.
I am an eternal optimist, but I’m not saying that positive thinking alone will help you achieve everything. However, if you are starting from a place of negative criticism and relying on this to keep you motivated, you are doing yourself a disservice.
My mindset has been the biggest change for me over the last year. As I progressed through the months of Operation Peak Health, I began to focus more and more on how the regimen was making me feel as opposed to how it was making me look. Before, I thought that it was all about goal setting and staying focused. I didn’t realise that if that goal was a weight or size, with self-criticism one of the overriding motivations, it is much harder to succeed.
I began to focus more on fuelling my body correctly, learning and understanding nutrition over merely ‘calories in and calories out’. My mindset for exercise now is that I want to feel good – I want that release of endorphins, I want to relieve stress, I want to protect my health in the long term. My dress size is not my goal any more.
That said, focusing on weight loss is ingrained in all of us. As the date for submitting this article rolled around, I did find myself wondering whether I had done enough, lost enough, toned up enough. I didn’t give in to these thoughts, but they were there. I’m not going to undo a lifetime’s thought patterns in one year, but at least I catch myself now.
Overall, what I’ve learnt about health and wellness is that we don’t need to have our own wheatgrass tunnel and have the Dalai Lama on speed dial, but we do need to be focused on ensuring we feel as good as we possibly can. Getting to know yourself is the best health and wellness journey you can take. Work out your triggers, iron out any issues, look at how you eat, how you sleep, choose a type of exercise that suits you and make time to rest and reset. You will reap the rewards.
It’s important, too, that you are not hard on yourself. No matter what your size, fitness level or health situation, start by making peace with yourself as you are now. I’ve lived this way for a year and I’m the better for it.
Don’t delay your happiness and wrap it all up in an end goal. Don’t get caught in the trap of ‘I’ll be happy when…’ because the goalposts just keep moving.
Miriam Kerins Hussey, pharmacist and co-founder of Soul Space says: “No amount of green juice can alkalise a toxic self-image.” I love that. ‘Be kind’ isn’t just a hashtag, they are words to live by, starting with yourself.
I’m not a machine. When I’m in the depths of homeschool hell, of course I want to drop the workout ball and swap it for a tub of Ben & Jerry’s on the couch. Sometimes I do that and it’s great.
My dad passed away at the end of November last year, and for the last days of his life and a few after his funeral, I stayed in my family home with my mum, my brother and sister. We shut the door to the world, and good food and rest was what was needed at that time.
I’m tuned in now to listen to my body. I don’t think I wouldn’t have got through the loss of my dad without an eight-week mindfulness course I took, which involved daily meditation. It helped me to process it all; as did exercising, eating well and getting out for walks.
As a nation, our daily walks have become something of a lockdown punchline, just as we joke about the number of people wearing dryrobes and jumping into the freezing-cold sea like their life depended on it… But the thing is, it has. Coping with everything Covid-19 has thrown at us has opened up an understanding that, to look after your health and wellness, you don’t need an exclusive gym membership or a watch that counts your steps. If you have those things, great, but the simplest things in life will make a massive difference.
For those who are curious, I did get back on the Dexa scan and, yes, I’d reduced my body fat percentage and increased my lean muscle mass over the months – not by much, although a step in the right direction. However, it’s the shift in my mindset, not the change in my dress size, over the last year that has been monumental and had the biggest effect on my health.
Clare presents ‘Alive & Kicking’ on Newstalk, on Sundays at 9am and wherever you get your podcasts