I've had a tricky relationship with exercise since I was a teenager. I love being outside, exploring the world and getting dirty, sweaty and tired. It's a fantastic way to spend time with friends. Challenging myself and competing is exhilarating. Winning races feels great.
But it's never been that simple. Exercise also gives me relief from both thoughts about overeating and the anxiety that makes it matter in the first place. It's an addictive combination. When I'm struggling with my mental health I crave those hours of peace where my thoughts are calm, my body feels tired but deserving of care and nourishment and my mind doesn't have to calculate or judge because it knows I've done enough to rest.
"The hardest part was balancing recovery with training."
Last year I relapsed into eating problems and, as well as using exercise to manage my anxiety and depression, I used it to purge. It became the most important thing in my life. I signed up to Ride London for Mind when my knees had given out from running too far and I was hoping I could cycle my way to the same feeling. Now I can admit I used big races as an excuse to do more exercise than I should.
It took my periods stopping to shock me into making a change. I've been trying my best to recover and cut down, to help my body get into a healthy place. I've started limiting hard exercise and doing walking and yoga instead.
But I still want to be able to enjoy running and cycling. I don't want to cut it out completely. It's fun, sociable and (with the right balance) excellent for mental and physical health. I just need to be in a place where, if I have to cut down or stop for a while, it doesn't exacerbate other mental health problems.
"Ride London has helped me practise taking on a challenge without taking things too far."
So preparing for Ride London was a different kind of challenge for me. It's not just the furthest I've ever cycled. The hardest part was balancing recovery with training, starting to build a new relationship with exercise. A relationship where I do it for the joy rather than the calories it burns. Where I stop when I'm tired not when the eating disorder thought gremlins say I can.
Read about eating problems
It’s a slow process. Some weeks I slip back into doing more than I should. For years I’ve done body tests and checks on autopilot. ‘Failing’ those tests would release an avalanche of self-recrimination and exercise resolutions. Stopping myself from testing my body and catching that spiral is hard – especially when I’m already feeling anxious, vulnerable or stressed.
Ride London has helped me practise taking on a challenge without taking things too far. Doing training rides and increasing my food intake as a result - but not binging or worrying I’ve eaten too much and have to do more long hours in the saddle tomorrow. Experiencing that feeling I was addicted to without needing it again immediately. Mixing up training with other things that make me feel calm – crafting, gardening and gentler walks with the dog.
"Riding for Mind has helped me find a gentler joy in cycling again."
I’ve always been impatient to get on with things. I think of my time in hours and days not months and years. But this kind of change takes longer. I can still do some serious double think to enable me to get the running release I crave. But I’ve noticed a definite trend in the right direction. It’s measured in months not days or even weeks but it’s there.
I put off fundraising at first. I didn’t want to let people down if I decided it wouldn’t be healthy to ride. But when I put up my fundraising page the support was amazing. Mind do brilliant things for so many people – and they helped me stay in work when I was having a really difficult time coming off Sertraline earlier this year.
Riding for Mind has helped me find a gentler joy in cycling again. I was proud to wear their logo on Sunday. And I’m doing my very best to make sure I eat and rest properly afterwards too.
Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.