I was never keen on PE in school. For me, it was a waste of time I could spend on other things; when I move to sixth form and was given Wednesday afternoons off for ‘games’ I spent the time in the Music block practising violin. I was never motivated to exercise and enjoyed only a few of the activities on offer, particularly since in upper years I worked hard at my equestrian centre for ten hours a week and rode regularly. Then for a long time after I left school and switched riding centres I thought that ‘exercise’ was just built into my daily routine as I walked around college. It wasn’t until my gap year when I didn’t have any regular, intentional exercise set up in my routine that I suddenly realised how important that time dedicated to focusing on my body and its fitness really was.
During my gap year I knew I needed to reassess and start thinking about actively exercising rather than assuming what I did during the day was enough. Thinking back to my high school days and their PE lessons I knew that I didn’t hate every session; there were activities that I enjoyed outside my horse riding, most notably table-tennis and middle-distance running. So I gently picked running back up through the NHS Couch to 5k podcasts. This process completely changed how I saw my body, what it could do, and I how I could change and improve it. I suddenly realised the importance of what I now call intentional exercise: periods of exercising which are focused on the session and its impacts on the body.
Before I say anything else I want to stress that all (safe, guided, controlled) exercise is good exercise. Not all exercise is intentional, and that’s okay – for instance, when I go for a walk in the countryside or ride my bike over to a friend’s house I’m probably thinking about the scenery around me or what me and my friend are going to get up to for the rest of the day. But if I go for a run, I want to concentrate on my body. I want to think carefully about how each step feels; I want to focus on my breathing and my pace. I don’t want my mind to drift from the action my body is taking. When I finish my run I want to feel more in touch with my body than I did at the beginning, because for me exercise is as much about getting to know your body as it is about improving or maintaining it.
During all of this, it’s become clear to me over the years that although I often say I hate exercising, that’s actually totally untrue; in reality, it’s all about finding the sport or activity that you enjoy doing and get something out of mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Horse riding is always my go-to favourite sport but in the last couple of years kayaking has done me just as much good, and it’s also a really useful example of what I mean when I talk about intentional exercise.
G introduced me to the kayaks over two years ago now; its something he got into as a Scout, and we went out a couple of times on his family’s double kayak during our first summer together. The double was a perfect way to start learning, as G could effectively control the boat whilst I got used to being out on the water, and before long we were paddling like a professional team (or so it felt, at least!). The following year he gifted me my very own kayak which I named Nebula, and we tend to take them out at various points on the River Waveney.
It’s a real privilege to paddle a normally untouched stretch of water. You see things you never would otherwise, from innumerable tiny fish flitting about beneath the boat to the darting flash of a kingfisher across your watery path. In my experience, what might seem like a relaxing paddle down the river can show itself as a real challenge, both physically as you push against the current or find yourself in rough or particularly shallow water.
There are moments when you can sit, relax and enjoy the view. And there are moments where you need to 100% focus on what you’re doing. For me personally, kayaking is perfect because it forces me to concentrate on my upper body only which is where I am much weaker; it encourages me to keep a consistently good posture and think carefully about my back and shoulders which have caused problems for me in the past. Even though I am relaxed and enjoying myself, I am also concentrating on working my body hard and, more importantly, working it correctly. This for me counts as intentional exercise, because I make a conscious effort to think about the work I put in and the impact it has on my body.
Kayaking is something I never expected to get into, and once the opportunity presented itself I definitely didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I do. I may just be a fair-weather river or lake paddler (G would like me to have a go on the sea but it makes me nervous, and I’m certainly not confident enough for rapids yet – though you never know…) but I’m so pleased I’ve found a new activity which makes me happy, gets me out doors, is sociable and works my mind and body hard.
You can try kayaking too. It’s really growing in popularity and there’s bound to be somewhere close to you that you can give it a try, either through a guided lesson or just hiring a boat and having a play on the water. Go with a friend, family member or partner, and make sure you’re given good equipment with a buoyancy aid or life jacket. Click here for a great post on getting started with kayaking and canoeing!
My challenge last week was to introduce more exercise my adding in three different types of intentional exercise as well as averaging 70,000 steps across the seven days. I’ve seen a slight improvement in my step count from the previous week but I’m not hitting that 10,000-a-day goal just yet, so we’ll keep trying this week. In terms of focused exercise I’ve managed two sessions out of the three I’d hoped for – some horse riding and a three-mile kayak with G – so again that’s something to keep working on. Next week G and I are off to Cornwall and I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep this positive mindset and try some more new types of intentional exercise whilst we’re there.
Because we’re off on holiday I don’t want to try and add in any new goals or habits this week. Instead, I want the focus to be on consolidation. In the last five weeks I’ve worked hard at improving my relationship with my body; I’ve made a concentrated effort to drink more water, create new routines, make healthier food choices and get myself moving more regularly. Now I’d like to have a good week reinforcing these new healthy habits. Next Monday I’ll be talking about what constitutes a ‘healthy holiday’ for me, so be sure to check back then!
What do you focus on when you exercise? Have you ever tried kayaking? What’s your favourite form of exercise? Let me know in the comments!