Physical activity is great for physical and mental health so in September as motivation we put a competition on our Facebook page called the ‘Step It Up’ challenge. The idea was to get people more active just by walking more. We asked people to record their steps in any way they chose (fitness watches, smart phones or GPS trackers) We wanted them to aim to do as many steps as possible but make sure that they were realistic such as a 10% increase in the number of steps from their previous week. We were blown away by the amount of both teams and individuals getting involved!
OYL: What was life like for you before you started this challenge?
Sarah: Prior to February 2019 I was a healthy person, I regularly enjoyed walking and had undertaken the 26 mile Yorkshire 3 Peak challenge only a few years earlier. The doctors think that it may have been a virus that caused me to be ill; I fell as I was leaving work and then started badly with vertigo. This meant that I had to have some time off work and when I returned I could not get back up to full-time as the illness was stopping me. I took the difficult decision to take an 8 month ill health sabbatical in August 2019 as I was due to have an operation for something unrelated at the end of August and the doctors were concerned that I was too ill to be put under anaesthetic. As it was, I had the operation and it took 3 days for me to properly come round from it. I have never been affected by anaesthetic like that before.
As time passed I had more and more tests – dozens of blood tests which other than my iron count and vitamin D came back negative – and 2 MRI scans. It was a very worrying time for both me and my young family and also very frustrating as some days I couldn’t get out of bed and walking up and down stairs was so exhausting. The doctors said that my body had shut down from sheer exhaustion and that it would take time to rebuild myself.
I was finally diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) on 20 January 2020. When they told me I cried, partly because I was now disabled and even the label was scary but also in relief that now I had a diagnosis I felt better able to cope with it and do something about it. I also have undiagnosed fibromyalgia in my hands, arms, feet and knees. The doctors think the fall may have caused it. After coming to terms with my diagnosis, I spent time researching everything I could about it and about health and wellbeing which was difficult as any activity I did was exhausting, even talking to people and reading zapped my energy and I found it a lot harder to concentrate with even little tasks. My husband was so supportive and had already suspected that this was what I had. The real frustration I found was that I couldn’t do the things I used to do, if walking upstairs made me need to sit down then how could I ever get back into walking up mountains which has always been a passion of mine?
During Covid, I returned to work on a phased basis, and after some weeks I’m now back to full time. I find this exhausting due to the volume and nature of my work as a head of department and so I currently do not have a lot of social time and often go to bed at the same time as my children. As time has gone on I have learned to pace myself. One problem I, and other ME patients find, is that today’s energy may be impacted by something I did 2 days ago so I have to be really careful pacing myself, and stressful meetings/situations can take a week’s worth of my energy.
OYL: How motivated were you to make a change?
Sarah: I was very motivated to make a change. At times I haven’t been able to move around at all due to the illness and the vertigo, which has not gone away, so I’ve found that I’ve put on a lot of weight. Having always been fairly slim, going up two dress sizes has impacted massively on my self-confidence.
OYL: What held you back from making a change and how did you overcome it?
Sarah: I desperately want to fit back in my old clothes but I’m scared of exercising as it is so difficult to work out if I have done too much as the impact does not happen straight away. It is like the boundary moves on a daily basis. I’m also scared of going back on the things I have achieved in the last year – walking up and down stairs and getting out of bed – by doing too much. When I saw this challenge I decided that I wanted to take on a personal challenge to try and do more steps and to try and get fitter in the process. My family have been 100% behind me and my children suggested I start by walking them up to school in a morning. Although this was something that I could easily do before and I absolutely loved doing, the hill half-way to school was a massive physical and psychological obstacle for me. Nonetheless with my children by my side we set off for school on the first day with my husband on standby to drive them the rest of the way if I didn’t make it all the way there.
OYL: How did you fit the challenge into your life?
Sarah: As I work long hours, I found that the walk up to school really helped to get my steps up initially in the morning. I then walked around the island in the kitchen whilst I was making coffee to add some more steps. If I had time between meetings I used the downstairs toilet so it was further to walk. I found that in an evening I was exhausted and so couldn’t do another walk but I would try and pace myself by walking more on a weekend as I could build in more rests and a sleep.
OYL: Did you have to make any special arrangements or purchases to get going with the challenge?
No I already had a FitBit which my husband bought me a few years ago. The only special arrangement I made was having my husband as a back up for the morning school run. He always does the pick up as I’d struggle to do both and I’m often in meetings at that time.
OYL: What would be your top tips for someone who might want to do this too?
OYL: What did you struggle with?
I struggled with walking every day, especially later on as my energy levels dipped. It takes me an hour now to wake up, I have multiple alarms on. With ME we never get into deep sleep, doctors don’t know why but our body won’t let us. I always wake up completely unrefreshed and feeling like I need to go back to bed.
OYL: Who joined you on the challenge? What kind of support did you get and what did that mean to you?
I set myself a personal challenge but my family were very supportive and my two children (Hannah 7 and Jacob 5) were so motivating. They are always saying they wish they could have ‘old Mummy’ back again, which originally I used to feel really guilty about, and I think they saw this challenge as a way of helping me to achieve some of this.
My children were excellent at motivating me thoughout, and my daughter and I would have a challenge with how many steps we had done on our FitBits. She always won, and I was fine with that, but it always gave her a buzz to compare it, and I’d catch her trying to get extra steps in.
OYL: How has the challenge had an impact on your life?
I feel that by achieving this that it is still possible to walk up a mountain as my short-term goal was to walk my children up to school, and walking up a mountain is my long-term goal. I will get there as I am very determined and I have a very supportive family and group of friends behind me. I’ve even had friends and work colleagues say that they will come up the mountain with me.
OYL: What would you say to someone who was considering making a healthy lifestyle change?
OYL: What aspects of the challenge have now become habits?
I try and walk my children up to school every day. There have only been 3 times since the start of the challenge that I have not managed this due to it raining or being in earlier meetings.
OYL: What change would you make if you could do the challenge again?
I would build in another exercise part way through the challenge so something like sit ups on a lunchtime or a short bike ride on a fixed bike.
OYL: What was your most proud moment in the challenge?
When I finished it and looked back at the total steps I’d done, I couldn’t believe I’d done over 183k steps! This time last year I would not have even managed a tenth of that!
I have achieved my own personal goal of being brave enough to take part in the challenge on my own. I know that 2 years ago I would have had so many more steps, but it’s about the here and now and not comparing with who I used to be.
November 2, 2020