Kick-starting those fitness goals in a gym-free world

Side-saddle riding, a martial art, aerial silks, boxing – enjoy it and you’re likelier to keep at it

Helen Cooke: riding side-saddle

Helen Cooke: riding side-saddle

 

After the year we’ve all been through, every one of us would like to see a better 2021 and for many, that may mean getting fitter and healthier.

But like many good intentions, fitness routines started in January are often a distant memory by February as people get bored of the monotony of the gym, the solitude often associated with running or even the idea of going out on a cold and dark evening. And that's in a normal year. 

Some people seem to have found the answer by choosing a form of exercise which is different from the norm and keeps their interest flowing.

‘It helps to loosen up stiff joints

Having had experience of tai chi, Heidi Bedell from Dublin took up the martial art of chi flow at the beginning of the first lockdown and says it has helped her both physically and mentally over the past few months.

Heidi Bedell.
Heidi Bedell.

“I started doing chi flow with Jo at the beginning of lockdown and it was good to have something which kept me in a routine, and I was able to learn new moves,” she says. “I became ill in March and this became the only exercise I was able to do – it helps to loosen up stiff joints and I can feel a great increase in energy at the end of each session.

“I practise every day and find it very beneficial as the exercises gently stretch out the joints and muscles first thing in the morning.”

Heidi, who manages the Baldoyle Community Centre, says her daily routine makes her stop and think of her body and while calming her thoughts, also gives her energy for the day. “It gives me a chance to get perspective and better judgment on what to prioritise,” she says. “I believe people have the power to absorb, emit, change and move energy and this helps to increase control of that. Also, since I started the regular chi flow sessions, I find I can think more clearly and the great thing is, there is no age limit to this – if I keep it up, I should be able to practice well into old age.”

‘I was extremely sceptical

Karen Smith also practises her unusual fitness routine regularly. The pastry chef from Stillorgan says she is “gym averse” so when she discovered an exercise which could be undertaken in mid-air, she decided to give it a try.

“I started aerial silks almost two years ago as a friend of mine does it and asked if I wanted to try,” she says. “I was extremely sceptical – I don’t do gyms or traditional fitness, so I thought you had to be flexible like a rubber band to do anything aerial. So I said no a few times before I went along – but as soon as I did, I was hooked.

Karen Smith.
Karen Smith.

“It involves two pieces of silk fabric suspended from the ceiling and you climb these using a series of wraps. There are several different ways to climb. And once you reach your desired height, you can do some more wraps which suspend you in the air and then you can stretch or do a drop. It took me weeks to be able to climb up, which in hindsight was good because I was building up my strength.”

The 28-year-old says while the activity is difficult, both mentally and physically, it is very rewarding. “Being up in the air with the only thing keeping you safe is the way you have wrapped yourself, is not a comforting thought,” she says. “But for me, it is a trust exercise – if Mari, my instructor says I’m wrapped correctly and I’m ready to drop, I will trust her.

“At the start of the class, we do what Mari calls warm-up – but what we call torture. It’s basically conditioning and if it weren’t for the reward of the silks, I don’t think I could do it. But although it is very tough, I love it because it is so much fun. Everyone is at different stages of ability and are so supportive – I was terrified to do my first drop but all the others in the class stopped what they were doing and came over to encourage me and eventually I felt a little less scared. I cannot describe the feeling, but it was incredible.

“It really is an amazing sport – physically it helps you to get strong and toned and mentally, you feel so happy both during and after the class. But the feeling of confidence and empowerment is unquestionable.”

‘There is nothing better than beating a boxing bag to relieve stress

While Heidi is engaging in her calm exercise routine every morning and Karen is dangling from a height, Janette O’Rourke is working up a sweat with something a lot more energetic.

The Dublin florist, who, together with her sister, runs flowerschoolireland.com, took up boxing about three years ago as part of a white-collar fundraiser for the Gavin Glynn Foundation and at the start of this year, put on her gloves again and has become hooked.

Janette O’Rourke.
Janette O’Rourke.

“I had just turned 50 and wanted to challenge myself and when I won my fight on the night, I joked that I was retiring and would not be boxing again,” she says. “I didn’t do it again for about three years but when the first lockdown happened, I was under serious stress – like so many others, I was worrying about the business, then working hours on end to get the courses on to an online platform so we could continue training florists.

“I do personal training with Wayne Finnerty in Absolute Solutions Fitness in Ballyfermot and he suggested taking up boxing again, through Zoom at first, not to actually compete, but just as a training exercise. So I bought a boxing bag for home use until I could get back to the gym and once I started back, I loved it. There is nothing better than beating a boxing bag to relieve stress. I will never compete again, but I will definitely continue boxing as part of my exercise routine and now that I’m back in the gym, I’m even sparring with Wayne and loving it for both the physical and mental health benefits.”

‘I feel strong, elegant and in control

Over in Meath, Helen Cooke engages in an outdoor pursuit, which harks back to days of old but is actually something she took up for health reasons.

“I have always been very sporty and rowed for Cambridge [University] and attained a full Blue,” she says. “I also used to do long-distance running and marathons and yoga was also a regular part of my fitness routine and a great antidote to the running. I was lean, agile and very fit for most of my adult life.

“But I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2019 and had intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy on my pelvis and afterwards, my body was broken. I tried running and yoga, but the pain was too intense, and I had given up all hope of being able to exercise again.”

Helen Cooke: riding side-saddle
Helen Cooke: riding side-saddle

However, after reading a historical novel where the heroine rode side-saddle, it occurred to the mother of four that this might work. So she contacted the Side Saddle Association of Ireland and discovered that not only was she able to do it without pain, but she really enjoyed it and has since acquired her own horse.

“I cannot express how much this has all meant to me,” says Helen, who is originally from the UK. “After the cancer I was angry and frustrated that the body I relied upon had let me down and was now unfamiliar and damaged. But I now, I ride every day and I feel my strength and fitness returning and my confidence along with it. In addition, the feeling of riding side-saddle is one of elegance and grace.

“Cancer took away my sense of self and I have been struggling to redefine myself and my place in the world. Riding side-saddle has given me back so much that I thought was lost. On my horse I feel strong, elegant and in control, the complete antithesis of how I felt during my cancer drama. I am all about goals and now I have a new one –to ride at RDS next summer in the ladies side-saddle class.” 

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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