Sport, Physical Activity and Feeling Good
6th June 2014
I was a very active kid. I had really bad asthma, and my pockets were always full of inhalers, but it never held me back. If I wasn’t climbing a tree, I was out on my bike, rollerblading to school, or playing football with my dad and my older brother. They would give me a chance, but I never won. During Wimbledon, my brother and I would chalk out a tennis court in the cul-de-sac we lived in and we’d hold a mini tournament, and every day of the summer holidays were spent outdoors, only coming inside to get fed and watered.
We weren’t a particularly outdoorsy family, but we didn’t have a lot of money and it was cheaper to climb a munro than go to the zoo, so that’s what we did. What money we did have was spent making sure my brother and I took part in whatever activities we could. I had horse riding, gymnastic and karate lessons, and was the first girl to play American Football for the local team.
Carrie as a child on a school sports day.
When I was eight years old, I was hit by a car and spent the whole of the summer holidays with my leg in a plaster cast. Unable to run around with my friends, I was miserable, and by the time the cast came off, I’d put on a bit of weight. Not a lot, but for the first time in my life I felt self-conscious about my body. Soon, I hit puberty, and those feelings were amplified by the hormones flying around inside me. As well as that, I had developed a rather intense crush on a girl in my history class. The worst thing you could be at my school was fat. The second worst thing? A lesbian. You can imagine how it felt as someone who was both – so I tried to keep them hidden. I wore baggy clothes and used any excuse I could not to participate in PE so no one would have to see me undressed and when that didn’t work, I got changed in the toilet. It was a vicious cycle: the more I avoided taking part in sport, the worse I felt about myself, and the worse I felt about myself, the less I wanted to take part in sport.
As an adult, it was even more difficult to lose weight. Social spaces for queer people were built around the pub, not the gym, and I was mistaken for a boy in the changing rooms of a Virgin Active one too many times for me to want to go back. I made various promises to myself to get fit but never followed them through. I convinced myself I just didn’t enjoy sport, that I wasn’t an active person, that I was just big boned. But the truth was I’d forgotten how to be active. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.
It was only when a friend told me that a doctor had prescribed her a gym membership for her mild depression that something clicked. I’d been having bouts of anxiety and depression for several years, but had never made the connection before. That afternoon, I joined a gym.
But hold your horses. This isn’t a story of an ugly duckling instantly turned into a swan, and I wasn’t one of those “transformation porn” stories you see in Cosmopolitan. I went to the gym on and off for a few months but I didn’t keep it up. Without a clear goal, I found it difficult to motivate myself, and soon my membership lapsed. My mindset had changed, though, and I understood the powerful connection between the endorphins released during exercise and poor mental health.
Not long afterwards, my wife proposed, and a wedding was all the motivation I needed. Together, we started swimming. Initially, I was sceptical because it wasn’t something I was very good at (I had two near-death experiences as a child) and did not want anyone to see me in a swimming costume but my wife persuaded me to give it a go. I think it’s just so she could beat me at something. The first couple of sessions were horrible. I could barely swim a length and felt like a whale. I realised that what I thought was swimming was actually just not drowning, so improving my technique took precedence over getting a six-pack. I watched YouTube tutorials, read up about breathing techniques, and practiced until my arms ached. Within a couple of months, I was swimming a mile without breaking a sweat, and the results were amazing – I felt better mentally, physically, and I looked great too. Over the course of six months, I lost about two stone and on my wedding day, fastening my jacket without holding my breath, I felt fantastic.
Last year, I took part in a Swimathon for Marie Curie Cancer Care – the first sporty thing I’ve done to raise money for charity since the sponsored bounce of ‘92. I swam 60 lengths in just under half an hour. Not bad for someone who not long ago couldn’t even swim one. I also flirted briefly with running and didn’t die, which is definitely an achievement. More recently, I took up yoga and absolutely loved it. For years I had written it off as posh stretching for yummy mummies and earth mothers, but now nothing makes me feel happier and more energised than an hour of dynamic flow. I would recommend it to anyone.
Marie Curie Cancer Care Swimathon.
I won’t lie, it’s still a constant battle to fight the voice inside my head – the one that sneers you can’t do it – and there’s a long way to go before I’m happy with my body. I missed out on so much and can’t help but feel that things might have been different if I’d had role models to look up to in those crucial teenager years – strong, confident, queer women, like Olympian boxer Nicola Adams or sitting volleyball captain for ParalympicsGB, Claire Harvey. But I know I was lucky – I have supportive friends, a friendly local pool and a brilliant yoga teacher – none of whom have ever shamed me about my body. Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone, and we need to do something urgently to stop another generation being swallowed by an epidemic of low self esteem. Any ideas?
Carrie Lyell joined DIVA magazine in 2013 – the only monthly glossy for lesbian and bisexual women in the UK. She's previously written for publications including Pink Paper, Lesbilicious and The Guardian, but is still bitter she never got the chance to join Newsround's Press Pack. Originally from Edinburgh, she is now learning how to be a Londoner. Carrie can be reached at @seej