My son and ex-husband tell me I’m an addict.
I’ll admit … I once was. In my late teens and early 20’s I was completely obsessed with exercise. Now, I manage my addictive tendencies with daily vigilance.
My battles weren’t pretty.
I remember a day as a young mum, when I had two toddlers and a sink full of dishes, where I absolutely lost it. There was hysterical yelling from nowhere. I realised it was coming from me.
My mother’s jaw dropped and my husband abandoned his beer. “I hate this. You guys don’t get it,” I cried and yelled as the kids scattered.
I remember my Mum’s loving arms around me as I sobbed uncontrollably. Much worse than any 2-year-old tantrum. It was primal. Intense. “I’m going crazy! I need to get out,” I screamed, losing control completely. “I’m exhausted … I can’t go before they wake up – it’s too f***ing early. YOU won’t let me go… You don’t get it … I NEED to walk”.
“Hey, relax, it’ll be okay,” said hubby, slouched in the leather recliner.
Mum is wiser. “You go darling, I’ll look after the kids and the dishes.”
And I went.
Runners on … out into the fresh air … outside … to the beach … I walked to sanity.
It has been 25 years since I was addicted to exercise.
I think it came from my youth. I was so obsessed with gymnastics that I became National Champion at 16 and a borderline bulimic by 20.
Eventually, pregnancy motivated me to manage my food obsession, and motherhood ended my exercise addiction. There just wasn’t time for me and my issues anymore. It took me five years to work out how to get exercise back into my life, and 20 years to understand why I had to make time for exercise.
So when I saw all the online debates criticising the mother who posted this photo, I was confused.
Because what I have learned is that it is NOT selfish for mums to exercise… quite the opposite.
In fact’s selfish NOT to exercise.
There is now more research than ever to back this up. Nearly one eighth of the population suffers from some level of depression, anxiety or mental illness. And exercise is a known cure for depression.
I know how happy it makes me feel.
And I know I’m not alone.
My friend Rose, a mother and grandmother, tried to end her life three times. The chemical imbalance in her brain kept her bedridden in a psychiatric hospital for months. Family suffering, her secret agony.
The black dog of depression, which started after the birth of her third child, had her firmly in its grip. It refused to let go.
She was plagued for 25 years by a cocktail of medications, dosages and side-effects, tortured by failure, her nightmarish secret, and the family shame of endogenous depression.
Last month, Rose spoke to me for the first time, keen to share her story to help other women. She was excited to tell the world she’s better – a brave act with unimaginable consequences for friends and family who either don’t know, don’t want to know, or don’t want others to know.
Unlike other diseases, mental illness is still a hideous family secret for many Australians. It is estimated that 45% of Australians will experience a depressive illness at some point in their lives and Beyond Blue reports that 18 million scripts are written for anti-depressants each year.
Research shows that exercise controls depression, promotes health, improves physical performance, improves immunity and memory, reduces anxiety, helps battle colds, flu and cancer, makes you happy, speeds recovery time after sickness, and reduces heart disease and cancer.
Rose told me that walking with women in nature cured her depression. She trekked 50 kilometers along the coast of Sydney last year with Wild Women On Top, and now she’s off the drugs.
Her life is truly different since she discovered walking. Rose said, “Now instead of texting ‘what’s for dinner’, my husband texts, ‘You are my hero’”.
Research shows that one third of Australian women do not exercise. And that is something that we, as a nation, need to change. Our lives, and the lives of our families, depend on it. So how do busy mums fit daily exercise into their lives?
It’s tough. It’s a daily battle. But it’s ESSENTIAL.
Five years after my hysterical tantrum experience, I found a way to get daily exercise into my life. I signed up for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal… to climb the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere, Mt Aconcagua, 7,000m, in Argentina.
I learned that by having a challenging goal which required me to be fit and healthy, I could motivate myself to exercise. I incorporated a charity component to my adventures, to alleviate the guilt I felt about spending less time with my kids.
And, when I could, I brought them with me. Together we discovered a family bonding activity which has led to some really awesome adventures.
Former Olympic swimmer, Susie O’Neill, had a similar experience. After years of intensive exercise, she found it hard to justify taking time away from her children to go walking.
But last month she signed up to do the Sydney Coastrek and raise money for The Fred Hollows Foundation so she could exercise with her friends and sister without feeling guilty.
“Walking seems like a waste of time so it’s hard to fit in with all my other priorities. But the fact that I can do this walk with my friends made all the difference,” she said. “Being able to restore sight through The Fred Hollows Foundation was also a big attraction because it takes away the guilt of doing something for yourself,” said Susie.
I’ve learned the hard way that I NEED exercise every day and so do my kids. And science shows us why. Physical activity brings a myriad of health benefits plus youth, immunity, and sanity. It’s just a no-brainer.
EVERY MUM’S GUIDE TO GETTING DAILY EXERCISE INTO YOUR LIFE:
1. Get yourself a Big Hairy Audacious fitness goal for charity.
2. Plan your week’s workouts every Sunday night, including locked in regular workouts.
3. Write down your goal – make a written plan of the steps you need to achieve it.
4. Educate your kids and partner about the benefits of exercise for you and them: Keep you healthy so you can look after them. Keep you happy so you are nice to them.
5. Join a fitness tribe so you’re surrounded by healthy people.
6. Get a training buddy so your exercise is social.
7. Exercise outdoors and in nature and get the extra happy hormones.
8. Make sure the exercise you choose has fun as well as challenging aspects.
9. Eat healthy nutritious food with portion control 80% of the time so you get results.
10. Practice a positive approach to life tapping onto daily motivational thoughts to top you up.
Di Westaway is a mother of three and the CEO of Wild Women On Top, Trek Training For Adventure. She is a former Australian Gymnastic Champion, physical education lecturer and journalist. Di is an expert in women’s health and fitness and adventure philanthropist.
Do you think it’s selfish NOT to exercise if you’re a mother? Do you have any tips for working exercise into your everyday routine?