I’d felt so alone but I read your article and thought ‘that’s me’

Rachel Flaherty: Since I started this column, your encouragement and advice on weight loss and fitness has been inspiring

Rachel Flaherty: ‘Rewards for reaching goals are now embracing new experiences I would have previously shied away from’

Rachel Flaherty: ‘Rewards for reaching goals are now embracing new experiences I would have previously shied away from’

 

‘I’d felt so alone but I read your article and thought ‘that’s me’ – and at least I’m not alone anymore.”

This is one of the most frequent responses I’ve received since I started my columns almost a year and a half ago. I too had thought I was alone in my unhealthy relationship with food, fitness and body.

I didn’t speak about it until I’d decided to stop berating myself, give myself time to get healthier, fitter and lost 22kg (3st 7lb). Then, I went to the other extreme – I won’t shut up talking about it now.

It was daunting when I wrote the first column about my experience, but I was determined to let people know that what is sometimes seen as a weakness can be made a strength. I prepared myself for the possible negative or abusive comments (I thought what could be worse than my own previous harsh self-criticisms anyway). But what I hadn’t considered was the overwhelming response the columns sparked and how many people would relate to them.

It was emotional and a privilege to hear readers’ raw and heartfelt stories and reactions.

Some stories made me laugh, others were heartbreaking, and many inspired me. I suddenly had this large group of people I felt connected with – no judgment, no patronising tones, but understanding and encouragement.

“It’s so unusual to have an honest discussion about the battle that so many of us face,” was one of the first emails I received from a male reader. While another reader responded: “The amount of times I’ve started and given up is countless. Struggling for 14 years now. But I have to stop beating myself up, as you say, and get back on the journey small steps at a time.”

Another woman wrote that it was important for people to know it is okay to take your time to find what works for their lifestyle: “I believe society and the media do not encourage us enough to find our own way. Instead, they encourage us to follow the generalised way of the masses, which is contradictory as we are all unique and living different lives.”

Relief

As the columns continued, many readers referred to “us” with a theme of relief, realising this was a more common issue than they’d originally thought: “Just goes to show, I’m not alone and there are plenty of others out there struggling like me in these areas in life,” a woman wrote. She also stressed she was happy in most other areas of her life, but this was an issue she hadn’t felt comfortable speaking about before.

A lot of people who got in touch mentioned their age, which ranged from teenage years to 94.

Throughout all the columns, the messages and stories were equally from men and women. The very few nasty comments were also equally balanced between men and women.

The stories of those who shared their own struggles while offering encouragement included people who said they were slightly overweight, a “normal healthy” weight, obese, morbidly obese and underweight.

“My unhealthy eating attitude has been my biggest problem for the last 30 years . . . I’m exhausted with constant mental negativity these habits produce. But I want to succeed in getting better,” one woman said.

Some people spoke about their jobs, and how they often worried about how sedentary their working lives were, the amount of time they spent commuting and time they had to spend in airports, and feeling on the verge of being “burned out”. High energy snacks was a habit they used to give them a boost, but that often ended up in weight gain.

“My wife and children are at a perfect weight, and it is me which stands out . . . I tried, but balancing work and family time, and keeping my weight and fitness on track, was impossible,” one reader said.

Parents who got in touch particularly worried about what type of example they were setting for their children, wanting to spend time with their families while also worrying about fitting in time for exercise. “I’m not obese but I’ve weight to lose . . . I need to be a good example of good eating and give them the best possible chance of being a healthy weight,” one father said.

A 17-year-old boy shared the frustrations he felt as a male. He couldn’t speak out about his issues with food and exercise, there was no “space” where he felt comfortable doing it because he didn’t see men older than him doing so.

A number of people messaged from their hospital beds with poignant stories. They felt their eating and exercising habits had led to their ill health or worsened their conditions. Some expressed regret that it might be too late to change their lifestyle but were determined to give it another try. “I’m now in my 70s . . . I strongly wish I had tackled this properly when I was younger, it’s a mistake to put it off,” one man said. This group of people were particularly generous with their advice on what they had learned and in giving encouragement.

There were also many comments from people who had created better and healthier habits, and had kept it up for many years. “I’m fitter than I’ve ever been at 53,” one woman said. “Taking control is good. I’ve learned so much from this journey and now I’m changing things like being a people pleaser.”

Another said: “I fit what I can in where I can around my job as a software engineer, where I am sitting at a computer all day, every day. I try to exercise when I can, I have rebuilt my relationship with food and drink, and I’m more responsible and happier than I have been.”

A woman told me the benefits of keeping to a routine: “I’m going to be 89 soon, and I have kept my weight pretty much where I want it. So eating sensibly is good for your health too, it’s not all about appearances. Your body will and does thank you for taking good care of it!”

And some shared advice which didn’t work for them: “‘It takes 21 days to form a habit’, they say ‘willpower is all we need’ – that is utter crap. It’s just not true.”

Self-sabotage

One article, which I’d considered not writing as I struggled to make sense of my actions, was on self-sabotage when I was near my goals. It resonated with many people who had lost weight and regained it later. “I’ve tried and failed with weight loss many times. You could have been writing my story from last year.”

Another reader wrote: “Felt like I was reading about myself, especially the ‘all-or-nothing attitude’ and the procrastinating”. And many sent an uplifting message that they had decided they would no longer let having “extra weight” continue to define their lives.

A few warned maybe I was being too honest and would regret it later (I haven’t) and others thanked me for being honest. I feel deeply appreciative and thankful to everyone who has read the columns, and to those who have got in touch. I’ll be on a break for a while to spend some time reaching my next stage of goals but will be back with updates.

Will I ever run a goddamn 5km race?

Yes, I will. I have to.

Will I torture myself on an obstacle race crawling through muck and climbing walls?

I’d love to (I think).

Will I reach my original goal of 32kg (5st) weight loss? If that is where my body feels its best and strongest, I will.

But I will be more guided by measurements, and how good and healthy I feel. The best part I’ve found about this process of changing unhealthy habits is feeling energised again and freeing myself to be more present in the here and now, to enjoy life to the fullest again and not be afraid to speak about when I don’t get it right.

The journey and learning is part of the fun.

Rachel Flaherty’s column is about getting fitter and healthier. Contact Rachel on Twitter @rachelflInstagram or email rflaherty@irishtimes.com

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