Jonny McCambridge: The search for a healthy balance goes on

Let me tell you something of the workings of an obsessive personality.

Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 6:00 am
My strict training schedule led to rapid weight loss

Several years ago, the realities of middle age began to become apparent on my ever-expanding waistline. In an effort to improve my general level of health, I decided to try and lose some weight.

First, I tackled my diet. I knew that I was eating far too much of the wrong kind of food. I had never been able to practise moderation when it came to sugar. While a sensible eater may occasionally enjoy a bar of chocolate, I would routinely polish off half a dozen in a single sitting. Crisps, puddings and junk food were consumed on an industrial scale.

The part of the brain which signals that you have eaten enough just never seemed to be activated within my skull. My repeated habit was that I would continue gorging, whatever the circumstance, until there was nothing left.

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Out of breath after last weekend’s Parkrun

I knew that limiting the intake of sugar and fried food was not a realistic option for a binge eater, so instead I took the radical step of banishing everything that was considered unhealthy from my diet. I entirely cut out all confectionery, bread, chips, red meat, fried food, coffee and cake overnight.

My new diet consisted mainly of fruit and vegetables, brown rice, seeds, oily fish and lentils. Lots of lentils.

The next step was to become more active. I joined a gym and signed up for several classes. Circuits, spin, body pump, Pilates and yoga were all embraced.

But running was to become my main form of exercise. I had not troubled my legs to move beyond walking pace since I was a child, but now, from a (ahem) standing start, I determined that I would become a proper runner.

I began to attend my local Parkrun on a Saturday morning. The timed 5k run gave me a chance to assess my own standard. It was not good. The competent runners were able to run 5k in less than 20 minutes. I struggled to compete the distance in less than 30 minutes.

Perhaps it says something about the nature of my character that I decided, almost from the beginning, that I was going to transform myself into a sub-20 minute 5k runner.

But my full scope of my ambitions had not yet been declared. I decided that I would run the Belfast Marathon. My younger brother, who works in fitness, informed me that a man of my age, with no previous running experience, should set a modest target. He suggested I aim to complete the course in about four-and-a-half hours.

Sibling rivalry can be a powerful motivating factor. If my brother believed I would run the marathon in four-and-a-half hours, I quietly vowed that I would do it much, much faster.

And so, with no informed knowledge or plan, I began to train (at this point the reader may feel that it appropriate to play the theme from the ‘Rocky’ movie as background music). I started by running three times a week and then built up until I was running almost every day. The more my wife pleaded with me to take it easy, the more obsessive I became.

Within months, I was rising at 4am several mornings a week to go for a 20-mile training run before work. Whatever the weather, I never missed a run. It reinforced what my long-suffering wife had often said; when my stubborn brain is fixed on a course, there is no force on this planet which can alter it.

My performance as a runner improved dramatically. After several months of training I achieved my ambition of dipping under 20 minutes for the 5k. I eventually set a personal best of 19:32.

And I ran the marathon. With my younger brother’s advice that I should aim for a time of four-and-a-half hours rattling around my mind, I completed the course in three-and-a-half hours.

I started this story by saying that my ambition had been to lose a bit of weight. This goal had certainly been achieved. Within a year I dropped from around 13 stone, to under 10. So rapid was my weight loss that some well-meaning people asked my wife if I was ill.

I was a lot lighter, but the truth was that I wasn’t a lot happier. When I look back at photos of my gaunt and skeletal frame from that time there is something haunted in the eyes, as if I had been cowed by the extreme effort it had taken to get there.

So, having achieved the goals I had set, I could think of no reason to keep going and simply stopped. The daily running regime was abandoned, and I went back to eating all the rubbish that I had before. If anything, the period of abstinence increased my habit of gorging chocolate. It wasn’t very long before my body returned to its original shape.

Now, I am heavier than I have ever been. Again, I find a stirring within me to lose weight and get healthier.

‘I think I might have a go at the Parkrun this weekend,’ I say to my wife.

She puts her head in her hands. For a moment, I fear that she may cry.

Unperturbed by this apparent lack of support, I do the Parkrun. I struggle around the course in just under half an hour, fully 10 minutes outside my PB.

It annoys me that I am so out of shape. For a few moments I think about what I would need to do to get back to my earlier level of fitness. Then I think about my wife and how many times she has told me in the last day not to ‘go crazy’.

The obvious solution is to eat a bit more healthily, and do a bit more exercise, without taking it to extremes. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier for me to type than it is to put into practice. My brain serves up absolutes, rather than shades of grey.

Physical health, just like mental health, never stays still but is in a constant state of improvement or regression. Finding the right balance is the answer. My search goes on.