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I run because…

Our latest guest blogger Hope Virgo is an author and mental health campaigner.

The reasons I run have changed massively over the course of my life.

It started out when I was at Junior School, I was always quite good at running. I did quite a bit at school, and exercised a lot. I didn't think there was anything wrong with me. And back then I always exercised for the right reasons.

But then it began to take over. The anorexia in my brain, controlling my every move. What used to be something I loved gradually became something I had to do.

I was still in this denial about the exercise obsession as well as the anorexia diagnosis, so even as I attended CAMHs in Bristol and my mum monitored what I was eating and what exercise I did, I thought they were all trying to make me fat as they were jealous of how good I was at exercise so I carried on what I knew how to do best.

I remember sitting in CAMHs and the doctor telling me my heart was going to stop and I would die if I carried on this way. But I didn't believe him. Even when I got a frantic phone call from my Mum when I was in town with my brother telling me my ECG results had come back and my heart was in a critical position I didn't seem bothered. I had seen girls that I thought looked much thinner than me so why did I need to worry?

After years of dieting and exercise, months in CAMHs, I hit rock bottom.

I was admitted to a mental health adolescent hospital. My hair thinning, my skin a yellowy colour, I stood in the entrance with my suitcase as my Mum dropped me off. For the first time in years, the anger disappeared, tears streamed down my face and I was absolutely terrified. I pleaded with my Mum to let me come home and promised I would eat, but it was too late.

At the hospital, I had barely dropped my suitcase in my room when the hard work started; the snacks, the meals, the bed rest, the group work. Every day merged into one long battle to fight my anorexia and get out of hospital so I could start living my life. As the days in hospital turned quickly into months, my weight went up. At first I would find sneaky ways to exercise. Looking back, I now realise how stupid this was, but at the time it felt normal. I used to tell myself to cooperate and that I would be able to easily lose the weight again. I used to lie in bed at night and fantasise about getting out so I could get skinny again.

After 10 months in hospital I was allowed to go on a 20 minute run a few times a week with one of the nurses. I lived for these moments in hospital and it definitely helped me to stay well.

Shortly after my 18th birthday, a year later, I was discharged from hospital.

Although my weight was healthy I still felt like the physical side had changed too quickly and my mind wasn't keeping up. But the fight did get easier as I fought it every day and I developed my coping strategies.

One of the hardest things since coming out of hospital was the exercise. As I reflect back over the years since leaving hospital my relationship with food and exercise has definitely been extremely up and down. I remember my three years at university when I was definitely obsessed with exercise. I would go every day even if I had been out the night before. I trained for the London marathon when I was 20 and ran myself into the ground with overtraining. Exercise was how I coped. I still didn't like talking about things and when I had a bad day I would exercise.

In April 2014, I decided I wanted to see how well I really was. I wanted to see if I could train for a marathon without losing weight and becoming obsessed with exercise. Everyone around me thought this was stupid, and they spent the months before the marathon worrying constantly. But in April 2015 I completed the Brighton marathon in 3 hours 26 minutes. I could never have done this had I worked out too much, or not eaten enough. It was then that I had a realisation that food is fuel.

During my training someone said to me you wouldn't choose not to put petrol in your car before a long journey so why would you choose not to eat before a journey. The hardest thing was stopping my running after the marathon. It wasn't normal to keep up all the running, but I was terrified I would put on weight. I was terrified my metabolism had been confused during the marathon and I was so afraid of getting fat. It frustrated me that these feelings were still there and it scares me even today when I have them.

So I know now that despite exercise and running being a massive part of my illness it is a massive part of my recovery.

How I manage it:

  1. Have people around me who are accountable to me and people I trust to have that honest conversation with, they pick me up if I am doing too much or if they think I am doing it for the wrong reasons.
  2. I have a Personal Trainer who I see every six months – she has helped change my thinking around exercise and helped me to become stronger in my body and as a person. I always think that getting that professional support if you are returning to exercise can be really helpful.
  3. Checking in with yourself about why you are working out. Are you doing it to punish yourself? Or because you want to?
  4. Can you have rest days? These are essential and if you don’t feel able to that is when I think it is so important to begin to check in with yourself again. Have people around you who can support you through this.
  5. Fuelling yourself is key and again a bit of a learning in progress but if we don’t fuel ourselves we won’t work out as well. I am testament to this.

 Now I run because it gives me the head space to think about things, it has transformed my recovery from anorexia and has allowed me to understand my body and the power for fuelling.

On My Mind has a self-care page that includes 85 self-care strategies – Physical exercise and Sport are two of these strategies. Browse them all and discover what works for you.  And if you’ve tried something you can let us know if it helped and how it helped using the ‘Did this activity work for you?’ button on any self-care page.