This time last year, I was overweight, out of shape and run down. Could I turn my life around?
This time last year, I could not get out of bed. Just days into January, a New Year resolution to get back into the gym had been rendered laughable by a flu unlike anything I’d ever known. Emergency childcare was marshalled from under the duvet; when it arrived, I had to crawl to open the front door. Friends took one look at the pitiful figure on her knees, clinging to the hallway radiator, and gently suggested I might need to start taking better care of myself.
They weren’t wrong. While I wouldn’t say I had lived a wildly unhealthy life, I’d never been what one would call health-conscious either. Partly this is because I am by nature quite greedy and lazy, and partly because until my 40s my health had appeared to take care of itself. As long as I pottered along to the gym now and then, and kept an eye on my weight, I’d managed to muddle through with no need for spirulina smoothies or a Holland & Barrett loyalty card.
It hadn’t occurred to me that this policy might one day stop working. But after undergoing pretty brutal treatment for cancer in 2015, I found myself overweight and horribly out of shape, with an immune system no longer worthy of the name. The flu was the final straw. Clearly, it was time for drastic measures. I had to get help.
I found a small company called Detox-Fit. Its a kind of one-stop shop for fitness, and provides personal trainers and nutritional support only not any old nutritional support. Detox-Fit is militantly, evangelically vegan.
The truth, of which I am not proud, is that until then I’d not given animal welfare more than a passing thought in my life. I loved meat. In as much as I’d ever paid attention to veganism, in my mind it was a bit precious and a massive palaver. The obvious question would, therefore, be: couldn’t I just eat healthily without becoming a vegan? Why not simply listen to my body, and eat what it asks for? I can see that for lots of people maybe most this would be the sensible solution. In my case, however, it is a terrible idea, the message I consistently get from my body is that a great breakfast menu plan would be two Mars bars and a Cadburys finger of fudge.
Encouraged by the fact that the couple who run Detox-Fit look like cartoons of physical perfection, I signed up to a personal trainer and a vegan diet for what I thought would be a three-month experiment. To eliminate the possibility of willpower failure, I took the precautionary measure of posing for a before photograph for Womens Health magazine. I’ve always found the fitness magazines body challenge series hypnotically compelling, and there is nothing like the prospect of an after photoshoot to keep you away from the fridge.
So in late January last year, I began training three or four times a week with a trainer called Rory Lynn, who used to be a professional rugby player and confounded my prejudices about PTs. Having always suspected they were little more than a lifestyle status symbol, and never fancied the idea of paying someone to shout at me in the gym, I had been doing the same workout routine by myself for nearly a quarter of a century. It was pretty much what you see half the people in any gym doing some weight machines, a spot of cardio on a treadmill, plus some Jane Fonda-ish wiggling of legs in the air. The possibility that this had been an almost total waste of time had never crossed my mind.
Not one of the things I used to do in the gym featured in Rorys workouts. I was introduced instead to an unfamiliar new world of bear crawls and burpees, Turkish get-ups and Russian twists, single leg glute bridges and crab walks. A lot of his exercises were quite like moves one might make in real life: lots of stepping sideways up on to a box, slamming medicine balls down on to mats and walking up and down carrying heavyweights like suitcases. These always looked either easy or even quite fun when demonstrated by Rory. Minutes later, I would be flat on my back, gasping for breath. When were we going to move on to the weights machines, I asked plaintively. We weren’t.
The really big surprise, however, was the unexpected joy of surrender. It was infinitely easier to train to the point of nausea with Rory than it had ever been to amble around the gym by myself. Being temperamentally indisposed to relinquish control, it came as quite a revelation to discover how much simpler everything becomes when you do. Half the battle with the gym is simply getting yourself there; and once inside, the temptation to slope off after 20 minutes makes the whole business an endless internal battle. But with Rory in charge, I could stop thinking about it. You show up when he says, do what he tells you to, and, er, that’s it. There is no willpower required.
Weirdly, I found myself adopting other uncharacteristically healthy habits, almost without noticing. I began setting my alarm for 5am, and beginning the day with a 15-minute cold bath on the advice of a friend who had also been through chemotherapy and swore by them, the thinking being that they boost the immune system. The first time I tried one I screamed the house down. The trick, I soon learned, is to get into the bath when it’s still empty and let the water level rise over you. I wouldnt go so far as to claim its a pleasurable experience, but the sensation when you get out is not unlike taking class A drugs and on a good day the buzz can last until lunchtime. Dry brushing is also remarkably effective at making your body feel alive. It helps with lymphatic drainage and the excretion of toxins is very simple and works exactly as it sounds. You brush yourself all over with a dry brush for about 10 minutes, and within a few days begin to visibly glow.
Another big surprise about my new regime was that, far from being complicated, veganism makes life amazingly simple. For the first few weeks, while I was panicking about what to cook, Detox-Fit delivered vegan ready meals to my door which was very convenient, obviously, but quite unnecessary. If you are someone who needs rules in order to eat healthily, an omnivore diet becomes an endless negotiation between angels and devils, and everything you eat involves a decision. The joy of veganism is that you have to make only one decision: to eat no animal products. Once that’s done, you barely have to give food another thought. The ceaseless clamor of adverts and billboards urging you to eat things you shouldn’t is miraculously silenced. Junk food can shout at you all it likes; you can no longer hear. The world suddenly becomes blissfully calm.
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