In my mind, there’s almost nothing more important than a healthy lifestyle (for a multitude of reasons), and it’s my life’s mission to live as healthily as I possibly can and to help others do the same. My day to day life is, one might say, meticulously planned in such a way that everything I do has a wellbeing-related purpose (this said, allowing some flexibility is key to staying well and balanced!). Things includes everything from the obvious diet and exercise to the number of hours I work (and indeed the type of work I do) to smaller details such as what time I switch my phone off at night and how much time I spend on social media.
This being the case, I set myself up for a challenge when I decided to take a life break and spend three months travelling in North America: I knew that travelling would not be conducive to maintaining my usual level of healthfulness and that I’d be surrendering a certain proportion of the control that I had over my lifestyle choices during that time. Perhaps the most significant adaptation would be giving up my cycling hobby: I had perhaps been riding 80-100 miles per week at home, and because of the nature of my trip I knew that I’d only be cycling occasionally, and that this would likely take the shape of ‘tourist cycling’ and perhaps the odd stint on an exercise bike.
Accepting that I wouldn’t be active to the extent that I usually am at home, I set about trying to find a good balance during my time away. Here I share my experiences of keeping active in America, reflections on these and share an example of a UK keep-fit initiative that I’d love to see travel across the pond in the future.
Whilst I am fortunate to have found a particular sport I really enjoy, and like to push myself quite hard to do well at it, I really appreciate that sport and exercise just aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. This is often seen as an obstacle to being active – a problem given that we know how very important this is for maintaining and improving our health – but ‘being active’ isn’t always synonymous with ‘doing exercise’, something I already had a sense of but became all the more aware of during my travels.
Given the loss of my usual exercise habits (and increase in calorie intake!) during my trip, I was concerned that I would gain weight, but despite doing hardly any ‘exercise’ over the three months this wasn’t the case. I put this down to the fact that I found ways to keep my body moving and burning calories on a day-to-day basis: I practised yoga daily (for me this is more of a meditative activity and is about keeping the body mobile rather than pushing it hard) and otherwise simply spent more time on my feet than I usually would, wandering around cities, museums etc. When the opportunities arose I would hike in State Parks; this was primarily about enjoying the scenery with the added benefit of getting some fresh air and gentle physical activity. As well as helping to keep me physically healthy, these activities also worked wonders for my mental state: they lifted my mood, got me enjoying quality time with new friends, and helped me feel grounded and at one with the world.
This got me thinking: being active (and reaping all the associated health benefits) isn’t just for those who enjoy gyms, are good at a particular sport or love the feeling of pushing their bodies to the limit. Being active is for anyone; for those who love life; for those who make the effort to experience the world with openness and curiosity. I met a girl in New York who would spend her days off just walking around: not ‘exercising’ as such, but keeping active simply as a by-product of wanting to explore her city. I met people who would commute to work by bike, simply to avoid the hellishness of rush-hour in a car, yet really found joy in the experience of getting outside in the fresh air and getting the body moving as a result. I saw families and friends playing Frisbee in parks; just having fun and enjoying life and just so happening to be active at the same time.
Seeing an active lifestyle in this way, quite differently from the way I usually live, reminded me of a wonderful UK charity called GoodGym, which helps keep people active alongside providing various other benefits to the welfare of the community at the same time. GoodGym’s name is perhaps a little misleading, as in fact it is not a gym at all, but a gym alternative that does all sorts of social good too. In the numerous localities that GoodGym is working in (their ultimate aim is to be everywhere in the country, accessible to all), a group meets at a set place and time every week, rain or shine. A trained leader will take the group on an all-ability jog to a location where they have arranged to complete a volunteering activity (such as clearing trash on the beach or painting furniture at a care home), then jog back, perhaps completing some little fitness drills along the way.
I’ve been to a couple of GoodGym runs and it’s amazing: you meet a whole group of really lovely people, the running is made easier by being around this great bunch, and there is also the satisfaction of having done some volunteering (not to mention the benefits for the recipients of the volunteering!). It offers some good quality time outside, something that’s great for our wellbeing and most of us don’t get enough of. We get a sense of community, of being part of something special, and going each week (rain or shine!) builds our resilience and gives us the satisfaction of being really committed to something. Basically, it ticks a whole tonne of wellbeing boxes through just one activity, which I think is pretty neat.
The awesomeness doesn’t end there: in addition to these weekly group runs, GoodGym pairs runners up with isolated older people to keep them company or complete tasks that need doing in their homes, and in return the older person encourages the runner and asks how their running is going, acting as a kind of coach. It’s just a win-win-win arrangement! There is no cost to attend GoodGym activities, but you can support the charity by buying t-shirts and paying a suggested donation of £20 per month (a cheaper alternative to a gym membership) as a regular runner.
We’re often led to believe either that living healthily is too difficult or expensive, or are fooled into trying fad diets, taking pills or chasing other quick-fixes in the hope that this will make us feel good. In reality, it’s true that life has a habit of throwing up challenges that make living well more difficult, and there is a whole range of ways we can combat this. But this shouldn’t always be seen as a chore and some of the solutions are simple: simply by making the effort to enjoy some of life’s small pleasures a little more can help us to take leaps and bounds towards healthier new versions of ourselves. GoodGym is just one example of an initiative that I think embodies this wonderfully, and I’d love to see something similar make its way over to The States. But even without an organised activity like this, I would encourage everyone to simply get up, get out, get moving, enjoy life and see where it takes you…