‘Exercise’ they said.
‘Get fit’ they said.
‘Pah’ I said.
Or that’s what i would have said two months ago before I had my heart attack. Now I’m an exercise zealot. A get fit fascist.
When I say ‘exercise zealot’. I’m not really, it’s all relative I suppose. I’m zealous compared to my previous self. I’m not Scott. Scott is a friend of mine who is supremely fit. ‘Time to smash it’ he posts on Facebook as he checks into Clydebank Leisure Centre where he will probably put his body through torments and tortures that would not have been unknown to the Stasi camps of 1950’s Berlin. I’m not Scott, but I’m also not old Graham. Old Graham would have said ‘pah’. Actually old Graham would have said something a lot worse than ‘pah’ but you get the gist.
You are told by the health professionals that moderate intensity physical activity is good for you, especially if you have had a heart attack. It improves cholesterol by raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL), this is the ‘good’ cholesterol, you know the superhero cholesterol that runs around with its pants on the outside. Also, as the heart is a muscle exercise makes it stronger and so it can pump more blood with less effort. It becomes more efficient and as it pumps with less effort the force on the arteries reduces and blood pressure falls. Good news all round really. The only problem is that you need to exercise.
I’ve never been a gym monkey. Sure, I’ve had memberships, many times, but I’ve rarely if ever gone. There is a part of me that feels that by having the membership card in my back pocket I’ll somehow get fit by osmosis or association. It never happens. Which I must say is hugely disappointing.
And if truth be told I’ve always felt slightly intimidated by being in a room with a bunch of people who look as if they eat children for breakfast and whose upper torso doesn’t match their legs, a real life game of Pick and Mix People on steroids, often quite literally.
So exercising was always going to be hard for me. Hard, but a vitally important part of the rehabilitation process.
As part of the post operative care you are given the option to attend cardiac rehabilitation. Do it, grab it, take it. There is an exercise element built into that which is structured to your personal circumstances and there are nurses on site which I always find reassuring. My challenge was that because I was treated over 200 miles away from home I ‘fell off’ the system a little and had to almost refer myself to the local cardiac rehab team. The NHS can cope if you live in the area that you are treated in. If not, well that causes all manner of challenges. What it meant though was that the exercise element of my cardiac rehab was delayed until almost two months after my heart attack.
I didn’t want the time that I was off work, I won’t call it the rehabilitation period, because rehab continues well after you return. I didn’t want that period to be one where I just sat around and felt sorry for myself. There can be a tendency to do that when you have had a heart attack, but I didn’t want that and because of the delay in cardiac rehab it would have been entirely possible. I wanted that time to be a positive one, or as positive as possible. I wanted to feel as if I had achieved something.
I also wanted to do something that I was interested in. I have to say I am hugely disappointed that it isn’t possible to get fit by reading. Whoever invents that is onto a surefire winner.
So I walked.
At the time of writing this I have walked the Thames Path. Well when I say ‘Walked the Thames Path’ I should more accurately include the phrase ‘some of’ after ‘Walked’. I’ve walked from Datchet, where we live, right through London, past all of the famous sites and some of the more infamous ones, Deptford springs to mind, to the Thames Barrier at the edge of the City. And I should add that it hasn’t all been done at once. I’ve broken it down into chunks and done a few chunks each week. But I’ve done it. All 70 odd miles of it. And I feel bloody proud.
I chose it because it was accessible, the Thames is less than 500m from home and it goes through a city that I feel so very fortunate to call home. I also chose it because whilst I may not be a gym monkey, I am a London History monkey. My bookcase that had space in it because of a lack of books on coronary care, sleep and diet is actually full of books on London and its history. It fascinates me and to be able to walk through that history whilst actually doing something that was of benefit to my health seemed like a bit of a no brainer. Well it was once I had got my head around the whole exercise thing. So walking the Thames Path it became.
Walking the path was a time for reflection. It gave me time to think, lots of it, to work through what had happened and what was going to happen. And occasionally it gave me time to get Tango’d. But it gave me time. Something that I found hugely valuable.
So what did I learn? aside from the fact that you take a tiny ferry between Shepperton and Weybridge that you must hail by ringing a bell on the quarter hour, or that Deptford doesn’t look any better on the hottest day in May since records began, or that there is a Rodin statue in Victoria Tower Gardens. I learnt that you need to set yourself goals, manageable goals and to listen to your body as you exercise whilst accepting the fact that sometimes those goals may just be a tad over ambitious. I learnt that it isn’t always possible to achieve what you had wanted to, but that is still ok. It’s all about doing something positive to help and aid your recovery. And it’s about doing something that you enjoy. I learnt that I needed to build exercise into my daily routine (and I still haven’t worked out how I do that when I return to work.) Oh and I learnt that you really do need to take sunscreen with you when you walk through London on ridiculously hot days in May and you actually need to apply it. Sunscreen, like gym membership, doesn’t work by osmosis.
Walking may not be your thing, just as going to the gym will never be mine, but there will be some form of exercise that is. So if you do decide to follow in my footsteps and walk the Thames Path make sure you ring that bell loudly at Shepperton and have your £2.50 ready as that is one ferryman that does need to be paid.