In response to the question, 'What are your New Year's Resolutions?'
"When I was seventeen I went to Angoulême, France on a two-month foreign exchange programme. I gained about eight kilograms thanks to the revelation of macarons and the persistent darkness of European winter. Arriving back in South Africa at the end of January, I was chunkier than usual, and suffering persistent back pain due to a car accident a year prior. I did nothing about it until June that year, when the physio gave me two choices: keeping paying her, or start swimming.
So, I got in the pool. I hadn't done any 'formal exercise' since I was thirteen, apart from gesticulating wildly during debating competitions. I didn't begin on any particular date, it was just the first day that I had the afternoon free that month. From then on I swam 1-2kms ±six days a week. My back pain dissipated. I chilled right out, reducing (some of) my characteristic perfectionism. I also lost 10kgs (1.5st/22lbs). I became a gym-regular with visible hip-bones (surprising myself and everyone who knew me) and developed pool-friends (most of them elderly; only lonely teenagers and octogenarians go swimming at 3pm on week days).
To be clear: I am not a fan of the gym. I do not like to sweat in public. I am the type who flushes hot while running and remains the hue of a certain reindeer's nose for hours afterwards. If I am seen running it is because I am about to miss the bus, or a flight. There is no other good reason for me to run. Note the emphasis. A friend of mine runs 10kms several times a week and finds it meditative. I swim up and down and up and down for hours like a silly goldfish and find that meditative.
Some people need a meditation pillow; I need a cap, cozzie, and goggles. And an open swimming pool. This was when there was no global pandemic. These days I'm sore, irritable, and long to be submerged in anything deeper than a bath.
Life-changing and life-altering change
Swimming changed my life. It wasn't the weight-loss, it was the release from persistent pain, and the sleep. God, I slept so well. If I missed a few days of swimming I'd begin to get ratty and irritable. (The pandemic has not eased my irritability, let me tell you). When I went to university and had slightly less free time (I took undergrad far too seriously) I found it's also fine not to stick with it every single day. Most exercise/sports psychology nowadays suggests that if you aim for six sessions a week you're likely to make approx. four of those sessions, because that's how life and humans are. Four sessions is still a lot of sessions!
So I swam regularly for seven years, and then in 2020 four sessions became no sessions. For the first few months of lockdown I was one with the couch. My average daily step count for April was 1914 steps. That wouldn't even get me to the nearest shops (probably not a bad thing as the indie coffee shop on the corner does fantastic almond croissants to which I have developed a possessive addiction).
The pandemic has put the brakes (and breaks) on so many life plans for so many people, changing habits and bodies for better and/or worse. It is a waste of time to berate yourself (or anyone else) for weight loss/gain, the deterioration of habits or the development of strange tastes in television (what WAS it with Tiger King?). The losses of the past year have been astronomical, loss of life being the most significant and the most inexcusable (ahem, Tory England).
Other losses are not, however, to be overlooked. The loss of plans to move countries, start degrees, get married, find love, go on lots of mini-breaks, or whatever people plan for their lives. There are also the unacknowledged losses. The loss of friendships that we didn't have the opportunity to cultivate. The loss of spontaneous days in the park. The loss of holidays away from home and the actual rest they should have provided. The loss of memories we might have made with family, near and far.
We are surely collectively in mourning for a lost year, a year full of strife and confusion and uncertainty and strange trends and far too much time alone in our own heads. This is not the best time to be self-flagellating over our past alcohol consumption, chocolate consumption, television consumption or any other habits you've picked up this year. Unless you've gotten really into cocaine in the last twelve months, because with nowhere to go and nothing to do, that seems a real waste.
Why make resolutions
Despite this post accidentally becoming 'My Fitness Story', the message I'm hoping to pass on is that you didn't have to change your life on the 1st of January. It works just as well in the middle of June, or in late September, or after Valentine's Day (take your motivations where you get them). It works just as well not to change your life too. 'It' is meaningless without a clear referent, I tell my students.
What is the 'it' that we think needs remedying, and why do we want to remedy 'it'? Why are we resolving to change? To resolve something, my undergrads might begin an essay, quoting the OED, is 'to find a solution or decide on a course of action'. Both of these definitions suggest an active change, an improvement or action undertaken. But change will come whether we like it or not. How we withstand change, or roll with it, is surely what matters most, particularly in the trash fire afterglow of 2020.
As we stumble blinking into the soft light of a new year, a year that promises absolutely f**k all in the way of certainty, calm or, dare I say it, good times, I recommend the redemptive possibilities of *not trying to do anything too drastic*. I am not interested in radical change, for the good reason that it will not make me (or anyone else), more worthy of respect and inclusion in the society I live in. Absolutely no one would care if I weighed less, and it would probably make me a worse person because I am awful when I'm hungry.
A guiding word
Some people apply the 'guiding word' principle to their New Year. Using this, you choose a word that will do what it says on the tin: guide you. I knew a woman whose guiding word one year was 'listen'. She eventually became a psychologist. Other good guiding words I've heard recently: breathe, positivity, learn, cheese. This last one I will bring to bear on my own life in February as I am currently observing Veganuary.
Veganuary is the annual attempt to live for the first month of the year without animal-products or anything that was produced from animals as a by-product or from the exploitation of animal labour. Once this is over I am going to dive head first into a pot of Greek yoghurt. This is one example of the monthly challenge/experience, my answer to the New Year's Resolution. I don't do guiding words, but if I did mine might be 'addition', and not because I am averse to maths.
Last year, I made a list of things that I would like to add to, not subtract from, my life. One month I did a lot of yoga (until I bust a metatarsal in my left foot. Then I laid very still). One month I got into pottery. One month I learnt to make a menu-worth of new meals. One month I went off social media, adding time to my days. One month I read 10 books (which maybe doesn't count because I read all the time anyway, but I don't record how many books I read, so the record of the books was the addition, not the books themselves). One month I launched a podcast. One month I slept around 15 hours a day (though to be fair that was depression). One month I started listening to audiobooks and walking. One month I started this blog. My monthly challenges aren't always good ideas, or indeed necessarily bounded by time.
Starting with the woman reflected in the puddle, asking her embrace the muddle
This year, I'm starting with veganism, on the second day of the month, because we didn't want to waste the cheese board leftovers. Hopefully through this sacrifice of eggs and dairy, I will discover new recipes and new products. With discipline and an open-mind I might become able to reduce my consumption of animal by-products. In this way, I will add to my life an all-important moral superiority.
Look upon the beauty of my morally superior falafels and weep.
Other things I'd like to add to my life in 2021: the ineffable cool of being able to ride my bicycle 'no-hands' style; time gained from staying off Instagram and Twitter; with luck and safety, the experience of travel to at least one foreign country; to be less shit at painting with acrylics; and most pressingly, the addition of Dr to my name through the (hopefully successful) submission of my thesis.
So, nothing big. You?"